Falsification, Fabrication, And Plagiarism: Research Misconduct

Falsification, Fabrication, And Plagiarism: Research Misconduct


Leonard Zwelling


I remember going through the process, but I don’t remember the point of the paper. I found it on my cv. It was in Biochemistry in 1991 and it was some sort of description of an esoteric aspect of the pharmacology of DNA topoisomerase II in human leukemia cells. It’s probably most noteworthy because a co-author was the great neuroscientist Karl Deisseroth who worked in my lab and is now probably going to win the Nobel Prize for his work in opticogenetics. He’s already won the Lasker Prize. He’s a certified genius and he was when he was in my lab. He’s the smartest person I ever met and I knew J Freireich.

The point I want to make about this paper is that it is probably the only research paper I ever wrote in which I typed every word and actually created the figures myself with computer software that was novel then. Thus, without any doubt, I could vouch for the integrity of everything in the paper. Biochemistry and the reviewers obviously believed me because they published the paper with few rewrites as I remember, but this was over 30 years ago.

I have no illusions about the contributions my lab made to the human understanding of molecular pharmacology. They were slight, but that’s academia for you where you get promoted for knowing more and more about less and less. There are two coins of the realm in academic research—grants and papers.

The latest flap about Claudine Gay’s research that involves allegations of plagiarism have raised yet again the issue of research integrity. It’s one of my favorites as I was overseeing inquiries and investigations into such allegations for 12 years at MD Anderson as the local research integrity officer. I had to do such inquiries fewer than once a year on average and I have had cases that were dismissed and those that were not.

As anyone who follows biomedical research now knows, allegations of data manipulation and image adjustment have plagued biomedicine ever since computer use has become so powerful in both the presentation of primary data and the search for faults in that data by others.

Dr. Gay’s sin was plagiarism or at least the lack of sufficient attribution in her PhD thesis and in other work. It turns out plagiarism is the easiest of the three sins to detect as software has gotten mighty good at it. However, the real fault I want to discuss is why these instances of research misconduct have become so prevalent.

The pressure on academics to publish has gotten extreme—far greater than when I did it for a living. Grants are harder to get and salaries are now at risk even at centers like MD Anderson where they were not before John Mendelsohn made them so—a great error. MD Anderson has more than enough money to pay its scientists without having to resort to additional pressure to get grant dollars.  Why not judge the quality of a faculty member’s research, not by counting the papers on her CV, but by reading them? There are moves to that effect, but faculty and faculty committees still tend to weigh cv’s rather than judge their relevance.

Dr. Gay got caught in a gotcha sting which could have been avoided had Harvard put her writing through minimal software.

Personally, I would like to see the journals demand more scrutiny of submitted scientific work by paying the reviewers. I would like to see promotion committees actually read the work of potential professors. Ask themselves if this person is really a professor. Is he or she really an exemplar of academic excellence? It should be hard to get promoted and it should take the full seven years as it did for me. I had to grind it out to renew NCI and ACS grants and publish in good journals. There’s no crime in that and I never had any of my results questioned, as insignificant as they may have been.

Dr. Gay’s case has once again brought up the issue of research integrity as has the editorial from the New York Times by Professor Selfe of NYU as referenced above.

We can do better policing ourselves and we better had because if we don’t someone else will and we may not like the research police.

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