Yesterday the first word in my daily email from The Scientist was “renal” so I had to read on; unfortunately, the next words were “researchers faked data.”
These researchers violated their experimental protocol, resulting in 16 papers with results that may be better than they should be (according to the post, 14 have been withdrawn and the other 2 are being withdrawn). The really scary part buzzed through the comments, namely that this fraud came to light because the investigators had a falling-out. How many fake papers out there will never come to light because those involved will not “kiss and tell?” I wonder about this every time I get different results from the established paradigm. Did I do something wrong? Were their published methods incomplete? Or did they present “edited” data? Let’s face it; you can Photoshop damn near anything!
What were these “scientists” thinking?
The sanctions officially leveled in this case seem mild, at least to me; 10 years of exclusion from federal research activities for the PI and 3 years for the post-doc/junior person. They have also lost their academic positions. Perhaps the most damning punishment is that they have lost their reputations.
This group was researching novel immunosuppressant drugs for kidney transplantation. This is not my research area (and rumors about this team have apparently been circulating in the transplant immunology community for some time), but I suspect many in this world will have the same reaction I do whenever a paper is retracted: never to trust any data from these people again. Once lost, a reputation is the most difficult thing to regain. There will always be a question mark in the back of peoples’ minds, even if it is never spoken.
While various levels of supervision and the peer review process can help weed out fraud, ultimately editors (and readers) have to trust what the researcher says. If you can’t be trusted, then your research career is over.
Art courtesy of PhotoXpress.