Corrupt Scientists Try to Explain Themselves

April 16, 2012

16 April (NY Times) – Naoki Mori, the Japanese cancer researcher who has had 30 papers retracted by scientific journals, was asked to give his side of the story.  In an e-mail, he acknowledged that his colleagues “were lax in certain regards in the preparation of papers,” but he denied having committed a grave offense.

by CARL ZIMMER
NY Times

The studies were retracted because they used pictures from older papers, rather than from the experiments described in the studies. “I think this reuse is not a scientific misconduct,” Dr. Mori wrote.

He and his colleagues studied the response of human cells to infection by bacteria and viruses. To measure that response, the researchers put molecules from the cells in a slab of gel and used electric current to draw them from one end of the slab toward the other. They then took photographs to show how far the molecules traveled; different types of molecules travel different distances.

To be sure that all the slabs contain the same amount of material from cells, scientists run a test on them using certain standard proteins. Dr. Mori claims he recycled only pictures of these so-called loading controls, which had no direct bearing on his results. “The central conclusions of the retracted papers have been demonstrated by other investigators,” he wrote.

But Dr. Ferric C. Fang, the editor in chief of Infection and Immunity, which retracted half a dozen of the Mori papers, dismissed that explanation.  “It is very disappointing that Dr. Mori continues to maintain his innocence,” he said.

He noted that loading controls in one experiment say nothing about the results in another experiment. And he pointed out that Dr. Mori reprinted other kinds of figures, too, sometimes claiming they showed results from different species of bacteria. “This is a flagrant example of scientific misconduct,” Dr. Fang said.

Still, Dr. Mori’s willingness to respond to questions is rare among scientists whose papers have been retracted.

“Unfortunately, individuals found guilty of sloppy or fraudulent research conduct seem to fall into a handful of behavioral patterns,” Dr. Fang said. Some continue to deny they did anything wrong; some admit guilt but don’t want to talk about it; some are prevented from talking because of legal proceedings; and some, Dr. Fang said, “seem to vanish from the face of the earth.”

One notable exception to this pattern emerged in 2006. A University of Vermont researcher, Eric Poehlman, was convicted of lying on federal grant applications and was sentenced to a year in jail. For the previous decade, he had fabricated data in papers he published on obesity, menopause and aging.

During his sentencing hearing, Dr. Poehlman apologized for his actions and offered an explanation.

“I had placed myself, in all honesty, in a situation, in an academic position which the amount of grants that you held basically determined one’s self-worth,” Dr. Poehlman said. “Everything flowed from that.”

Unless he could get grants, he couldn’t pay his lab workers, and to get those grants, he cut corners on his research and then began to fabricate data.

“I take full responsibility for the type of position that I had that was so grant-dependent,” he told the court. (Efforts to reach him for comment for this article were unsuccessful.) “But it created a maladaptive behavior pattern. I was on a treadmill, and I couldn’t get off.”

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