It's All the Same...

Lisa was puzzled by the image of the gel featured in the research article in the current issue of Cell that she was reading. The bands in the two critical lanes on the gel that established the success of the pulse-chase experiment seemed virtually identical. Increasing the magnification of the image Lisa could see that the two lanes were indeed the same down to the size, shape, and tailing of each and every band. Increasing the magnification still further showed discontinuities in the background on one lane suggesting the image of that lane had been digitally copied and pasted onto the gel image. Confused she wasn't sure exactly what to think. She was a summer undergraduate research student and admittedly a novice in this field of research. Lisa reasoned that the article had been peer-reviewed and was published in one of the top journals in the field so it didn't seem possible that the data could have been fabricated or manipulated in any way. She was concerned that if she showed the article and shared her concerns with her research mentor that her research mentor might either think she was incredibly stupid or incredibly narcissistic.

Consider each of the following questions and evaluate the case study:

1. What is the action or inaction that is the cause for concern?

Lisa thinks that she has found an instance of scientific misconduct, specifically, fabrication or falsification of data in a published technical article.

2. Who or what may be affected?

All the authors on the paper since they are responsible for the integrity of the publications bearing their names will certainly be affected. Other members of the research laboratories in which the research was done may also be affected. Finally anyone in the field who is depending on the authenticity of the work on which to base their own scientific inquiries or findings is likely to be affected.

3. How will they be affected? (i.e., what are the possible consequences?)

Since all authors are responsible for the quality of their published work, the authors' professional reputation may suffer. The quality of their other publications may also be questioned. Remember the old adage "guilt by association"? Well, as unfair as it may seem the integrity of the work of other members of the laboratories involved in the fraudulent research may also be questioned. If the study turns out to be fraudulent, then advancements in the field might be delayed until researchers discover the fraud. This would cost those researchers unnecessary time, money, and effort.

4. Are there any laws, regulations written or unwritten that may apply?

Universities usually investigate alleged instances of scientific misconduct very carefully. In general, the university will identify an inquiry team consisting of senior researchers who have no past or current research ties with the principal investigator to investigate the alleged misconduct. The team will interview all of the individuals involved in the incident, review all of the written records including laboratory notebooks, reports and publications, and prepare a written report summarizing their findings within a finite time period. If the research was funded by the U.S. Government, then The Office of the Inspector General might investigate.

5. What actions might be taken and what would the consequences of these actions be?

Consequences would likely be quite severe and could include censure, loss of professional credibility, loss of research funding, termination of employment, fines, and even imprisonment.

6. Can anything be done to prevent this from reoccurring or to minimize the severity of the consequences?

This is certainly the so-called "million dollar question." Can a principal investigator detect and pre-empt a skillful individual determined to perpetrate scientific fraud? Certainly, a principal investigator can go a long way toward preventing problems by providing hands-on training, encouraging good science, and maintaining a healthy, open, positive spirit of inquiry in the laboratory and by insisting that work be replicated independently in the lab before publication. One thing is clear fraud does happen even in the laboratories of the most highly respected scientists.

Basis for Case Study 8

In this case, a postdoctoral student allegedly "edited" a series of gel images in an article submitted for publication. A spot check by a journal editor caught the image manipulation and ultimately led to the discovery that the young scientist had done this on three other publications as well. The student lost her job but more importantly because the research impacted had been support by funding from the National Institutes of Health, the major source of financial support for biomedical research, the postdoctoral student was censured and prohibited from receiving NIH support for 5 years.

J.R. Young. (2008) Chronicle of Higher Education, May 29. "Journals Find Fakery in Many Images Submitted to Support Research."