Dishonesty in Research

By Catherine Kizer

Recent revelations of research falsification and fraud have rocked the scientific community. Ranging from South Korea to Norway to the United States, cases have called many well-known scientists' integrity into question and, in most cases confirmed their malfeasance. While these are certainly not the first cases of scientific misconduct, public attention has been focused due to increasing coverage by the media. One such example occurred at Harvard in 1981. This case involved John Darsee, a scientist and clinician who had, up to that point, a very illustrious and prolific research career. He was found to have fabricated and falsified his data on numerous occasions 5 . Due to these revelations, NIH funding was retracted and Darsee was fired from his position at Harvard. Most disturbing about his case was that had a colleague not actively witnessed his falsification of data, he may well have continued publishing fraudulent papers unfettered.

A more sensational occurrence of fraud was that involving the discovery of South Korean researcher Hwang Woo-suk's fabrication of data regarding human cloning. In this instance, Woo-suk simply invented many of his results and lied about the use of human stem cells in human cloning 4 . This came as a major set back in the face of promising advances in the field of cloning. The implications of his misconduct are monstrous. For a public that already regards stem cell research with distrust, Woo-suk's actions further obfuscate the cloning debate and add credence to the arguments of a growing faction of anti-intellectualists. Additionally, scientists who have been using their own valuable resources to advance his research have been basing their work on false data, wasting time and money.

The growing concern about preserving the integrity of the scientific community from dishonest researchers resulted in the development of two governmental agencies responsible for investigating possible cases of fraudulent research. These two branches, OSI (Office of Scientific Integrity) and OSIR (Office of Scientific Integrity Review), were replaced in 1992 by the ORI (Office of Research Investigation) 1 . A recent article by Claxton used the cases of fraud identified by ORI in conjunction with PubMed to calculate an estimated incidence of fraud 2 . He determined that in published journals approximately 0.018% of articles are fraudulent. At first glance one might conclude that this is a minimal amount of tainted research and need not be cause for concern. However, the damage due to these relatively isolated incidents is far reaching. The high profiles of the researchers and institutes involved results in intense media coverage and public scrutiny. The discovery of dishonesty in one researcher casts a shroud of doubt over all others. Furthermore, the harm of academic dishonesty is even greater in clinical research. Not only are valuable resources wasted and data rendered invalid, but peoples' lives and health are at risk. This violates the core mandate that we as physicians take an oath to uphold, to first do no harm.

Unfortunately, as Claxton also points out, fraud is exceedingly difficult to discover. Due to the difficulty in detecting fraud, it is likely that any figures calculated to estimate the incidence of misconduct in research are going to be under representations of the actual incidence. As in the Darsee case, many prominent journals and high profile institutes have been deceived by fraudulent work. This highlights the difficulties faced by the scientific community in identifying cases of scientific misconduct before they are published, even with the development of governmental agencies specifically to identify misconduct. In this day and age, the numbers of scientific publications are increasing exponentially and the pressures to publish are enormous. The ORI has reported increasing numbers of fraudulent research in recent years 2 . We as upcoming researchers and clinicians must be aware of the possibility that data and results can be falsified so that we will be better equipped to recognize them as they occur. Many of the cases that have been verified as fraud were brought to public attention due to information from colleagues of the guilty parties.

Policies and laws on their own will not be able to prevent savvy, misguided scientists from continuing to produce fraudulent research, to the detriment of the scientific community. It is incumbent upon us to police ourselves, both by being aware of and reporting colleagues who are engaging in fallacious research and by ensuring that we do not succumb to the pressures that predispose to unethical conduct. While it is naïve to assume we can eradicate scientific misconduct, it is critical that we be vigilant in identifying misconduct. Only then will we be able to keep the incidence of fraudulent research low and ensure the integrity of the scientific.


• Claxton, Larry. Scientific Authorship Part I. A window into scientific fraud? Mutation Research . 2005;589:17-30.

• Martyn, Christopher. Fabrication, Falsification, and Plagiarism. Q J Med . 2003;96:243-4.

• Education Guardian . Fouche, Gladys. "Respected Norwegian Scientist faked study on oral cancer." Accessed May 4, 2006.,9959,1687477,00.html .

• The New York Times. Faked Research on Stem Cells Confirmed by Korean Panel. Published December 23, 2005. Accessed May 4, 2006. .

• Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. John Darsee. Accessed May 4, 2006. .