Retractions and Besmirched Reputations

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Aug. 17, 2010 — Saturday morning, a shade before 10 am. I’m sipping coffee from a tall mug with stylized lions and tigers and what appear to be cheetahs gracing the outside and wondering what in creation I’m going to write about this week. Feeling a bit creaky, and mostly disinclined to engage the world of ideas, I am reminded of a passage from Mark Twain’s Roughing It – a fictionalized account of his seven years of vicissitudes in the Old West, speculating on timber and mining stocks and working for a series of small papers.

“[I]t is an unspeakable hardship to write editorials,” he said, recalling his very brief stint heading up the Territorial Enterprise of Virginia City, Nev. “Subjects are the trouble – the dreary lack of them, I mean. Every day it is drag, drag, drag – think, and worry and suffer – all the world is a dull blank, and yet the editorial columns must be filled.”

Oh man, is this true for me this morning.

Scrolling through the news sites, I’m slowly roused by the headlines inching across my screen. “Inquiry on Harvard Lab Threatens Ripple Effect.” “Dave Matthews: An Unlikely Rock Star at The Crossroads.” The slightly unwieldy “Bill Gates Predicts Technology Will Make ‘Place-Based’ Colleges Less Important in 5 Years.”

I first read about the Harvard inquiry a week or so ago in The Boston Globe. The Globe article revealed that Marc Hauser, a well-known psychology researcher at the university, is taking a leave after a three-year internal investigation uncovered evidence of scientific misconduct in his lab. These findings led to the retraction of a 2002 Cognition paper on which he was listed as the corresponding author, a paper about rule-learning by cotton-top tamarin monkeys. The retraction, which hasn’t yet been published, states simply: “An internal examination at Harvard University … found that the data do not support the reported findings. We therefore are retracting this article.”

Martinson et al. suggest that misconduct – defined by the US Office of Science and Technology Policy as “fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism (FFP) in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results” – is far more prevalent than the occasional high-profile case (such as the above) might suggest. In a 2005 survey, they found that 33 percent of early- and mid-career scientists based in the US and funded by the National Institutes of Health had engaged in one of the top 10 behaviors identified as misconduct – from changing the design, methodology or results of a study in response to pressure from a funding source to straight-up falsifying or “cooking” the data (see “Scientists Behaving Badly” in the June 9, 2005, issue of Nature).

Such behaviors quite obviously threaten the integrity of the science. But there are a number of other possible consequences, including a sort of negative halo effect that can impact colleagues and collaborators. It’s still not clear what kind of misconduct occurred in the Harvard lab, for example. This is unfortunate as it leaves an open question as to the culpability of students and others working under Hauser. (Gary Marcus, a psychology professor at New York University and one of the co-authors of the paper, has already clarified that he wrote the introduction and conclusions based only on summaries of the data provided by Hauser; he never actually saw the raw data, he said.)

Or, consider a case of misconduct in the lab of Larry Pease at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Some eight years ago, researchers in the lab identified an antibody that appeared to potentiate dendritic cell function and set out to develop a cancer vaccine strategy based on this finding. They proved unable to reproduce the original experiment, however. Eventually, Pease went to the Mayo Clinic authorities and accused Suresh Radhakrishnan, an investigator with almost 10 years of experience in the lab, of tampering with the attempts to do so. After an investigation, Radhakrishnan was fired, and as many as 17 papers were – or will soon be – retracted.

A minor kerfuffle broke out in the comments section of the Nature blog post <http:>reporting this. Even as Radhakrishnan wrote of his high esteem for Pease as a “mentor, philosopher, friend, guide, scientist, human being, rationalist,” another commenter called into question the latter’s own scientific integrity and competence.

“I wonder why it took so long (over 8 years),” the commenter wrote, “for Pease (the lab supervisor-principal investigator) to even raise these potential scientific misconduct issues only recently – in 2010 – after all those biomedical publications and patent applications based on the former’s work (fraudulent or not) have been all endorsed by their names (and several others) since 2002!?”

This may not be entirely fair to Pease, but it does underscore the negative impact misconduct can have on the reputations of others – making it all the more important to be vigilant about identifying and reporting it, while also, perhaps, clarifying the roles individuals play in studies.


Published: August 2010
Different WavelengthsGary BoasGary Boas BlogHarvardHarvard UniversityHauserLarryLarry PeaseMarcMarc HauserMayo ClinicPeaseRadhakrishnanresearch misconductscientific misconductSureshSuresh Radhakrishnan

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