How do you investigate scientific misconduct?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Dec. 16 2005 6:33 PM

What Happens to Bad Scientists?

Lock the labs, sequester the notebooks.

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Fabricating stem cells?
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Fabricating stem cells?

Superstar stem-cell researcher Hwang Woo Suk was accused of major scientific fraud on Thursday. A collaborator now claims Hwang faked much of the data for the groundbreaking research he published in May; earlier in the week, a co-author from the University of Pittsburgh withdrew his name from the work. Investigations are now underway in Pittsburgh and Seoul. How do you investigate scientific misconduct?

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

First, interview everyone who might be involved. In the United States, research institutions conduct their own inquiries into scientific wrongdoing. If the allegation seems credible, a small committee will spend up to a month quietly looking into the matter. They'll talk to witnesses—most likely members of the lab, collaborators, and the person who made the charge—before confronting the accused researcher with the charges against him. If the committee decides there's reasonable evidence for misconduct, the issue passes to a larger committee for a formal investigation.

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A full-on investigation, like the one planned by the University of Pittsburgh, may include people from outside the institution, like scientists from other schools and local lawyers. A small college or university might hire a law firm that specializes in fraud cases to conduct the investigation on its behalf.

The committee typically interviews more witnesses (and records their testimony) and looks at evidence from the lab. They might seize notebooks, equipment, and computer files and hold them under lock and key until the investigation is over. (The scientist can often obtain copies of the sequestered notes and files—or limited access to the sequestered equipment—so he can keep working while under investigation.) In some cases, investigators might want to search a scientist's home for incriminating evidence.

Forensic scientists might be called in to detect evidence tampering. Analysis of the ink in a lab notebook, for example, might turn up backdated entries or other mischief. In some cases a suspicious colleague or boss will try to trick someone into incriminating himself: The head of the lab might replace a post-doc's biological reagent with water so that any positive result he reports could only be a fabrication.

The government gets involved whenever the misconduct involves research done with a federal grant. (No federal money supported Hwang's stem-cell research, which was conducted in South Korea.) The Office of Research Integrity reviews cases of misconduct in biomedicine; any government-funded researcher found guilty of fabricating, falsifying, or plagiarizing data can be hit with an administrative penalty. The ORI can "debar" a researcher from receiving any federal money for a specified period of time—usually three years. It can also prohibit someone from serving on government advisory committees. Universities hand down their own penalties, so a guilty professor could also be fired.

Every once in a while, a case of scientific misconduct makes its way into the criminal courts. Last month, a cancer researcher named Paul Kornak was given a six-year prison sentence for the death of a patient he fraudulently enrolled in a drug experiment.

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Explainer thanks Mark Frankel of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. 

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