Data Faker Turns Himself In

Apr 11 2009 Published by under Scientific Misconduct

My real world email box received four copies of a recent ORI Notice of Scientific Misconduct. I thought it odd that I received so many duplicates, mentally cursed the ORI for not culling duplicate emails out of their database and shrugged over what appeared to be a run of the mill case of misconduct:

PHS found that Respondent engaged in scientific misconduct by falsifying and fabricating baseline data from a study of sleep apnea in severely obese patients published in the following paper: Fogel, R.B., Malhotra, A., Dalagiorgou, G., Robinson, M.K., Jakab, M., Kikinis, R., Pittman, S.D., and White, D.P. ``Anatomic and physiologic predictors of apnea severity in morbidly obese subjects.' Sleep 2:150-155, 2003 (hereafter referred to as the ``Sleep paper'); and in a preliminary abstract reporting on this work.

The conversation at writedit's place (you do have MWE&G bookmarked, right?) drew my attention to a strange fact.

Note the wording of this introductory clause:

Based on information that the Respondent volunteered to his former mentor on November 7, 2006, and detailed in a written admission on September 19, 2007

writedit also points us to an article in The Scientist:

Robert Fogel, a pathophysiologist who worked in the Brigham's division of sleep medicine from 1998 to 2004, fiddled with approximately half the physiologic, anatomic, and sleep-related data in a 2003 study in the journal Sleep. He also made up some anatomic data that he claimed were obtained from computed tomography (CT) scans. The study investigated the role of obesity in obstructive sleep apnea, a breathing-related sleep disorder.

"What I did was obviously horrendously wrong," Fogel, now director of clinical research in the respiratory and allergy division at the Merck Research Laboratories in Rahway, NJ, told The Scientist. "I take whatever consequences come from that."

Fogel himself initiated the investigation, informing his old institute and getting the ball rolling. And of course he accepted the finding and sanction quickly.

"If I hadn't come clean, this probably never would have come to light," he said. "I hate to say it, but this probably happens more often than we think."

Only slightly self-serving there, guy. I mean, "everybody's doing it", right? So you must not be so unusual and hey, you 'fessed up so you are a white hat.
He also claims the move to the private Merck gig was unrelated to the data fakery. It might have been. But was the confession similarly unrelated? One suspects not. One suspects Fogel's attitude toward this issue would have been quite different had he still been in the grant-funded, publish-or-perish pipeline.
As I continue to hammer at with these cases, it is all about the contingencies. The contingencies for one's personal and professional future shape decision making about faking in the first place, willingness to call out fraud, defense against accusations of fraud, etc.
In this case, once this fraudulent scientist was in a situation where confession did not jeopardize his livelihood, he was willing to take the embarrassment and confess. I mean, perhaps his current company would sack him over a fraudulent CV or something. But they wouldn't have to do so if he was doing good work for them and the management structure liked him. In contrast (and this is an honest question), isn't an ORI finding of misconduct pretty much the end of the career in academic NIH funded research? So on the face of it, I'd be much more likely to score this relatively unusual case as a reflection of the unusual circumstances of Fogel's employment.

16 responses so far

  • msphd says:

    I don't think misconduct is necessarily the end of funding from NIH. I'm pretty sure I know of cases where "mistakes were made" and papers retracted, but new funding was rapidly acquired and new papers are coming out.
    I'm not saying I'd believe what's in the articles from these people, but I think all they did was switch study sections/institutes (?).
    Even if you've really publicly fucked up, it seems like most people can't remember the names a couple of years later, and any black marks are not going to come up automatically in a system that is barely computerized.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    For clarity, there is a big difference between a simple paper retraction and a formal investigation (local institute and ORI) and finding of fraud coupled with a sanction respecting holding NIH funding, advising PHS, etc.
    In a paper retraction, as we've seen, the authors rarely actually blame anyone for intentional fraud...

  • becca says:

    Yeah, because Merck really wants their name associated (again) with shady researchers.
    I don't buy the arugment that his livelihood is automatically threatened less because he's not in academia.
    Academia is, admittedly, a game where reputation can make or break you, and a few powerful jerks can blackball someone just starting out with ridiculous ease. It does not follow that they are necessarily harsher on actual fraud than industry. It could be true, but do we actually have any data on fraud related dismissals in both contexts?

  • Ted says:

    I wonder how the fellow scientists feel about being on that paper?

  • S. Rivlin says:

    I know of several cases in academia (I have no knowledge about similar cases in the industry) where the scientist who committed the misconduct was not punished either by the institution she is employed at or by the ORI or by one, but not the other.

  • MattK says:

    If I was emperor the dude would be in jail. I hate that shit.

  • Gingerale says:

    DM, your post reminds me of the book by Broad & Wade, circa 1983, called Betrayers of the Truth. E.g.:
    http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Betrayers-of-the-Truth/William-J-Broad/p/9780671495497 . ISBN-13 = 9780671495497. Maybe you've already mentioned it in a prior post (I've only recently showed up at your party).

  • jay says:

    "If I hadn't come clean, this probably never would have come to light," he said. "I hate to say it, but this probably happens more often than we think."
    Only slightly self-serving there, guy. I mean, "everybody's doing it", right?

    It could be read that way, but I did not sense any self justification in those words. It seemed cautionary that there might be a lot that is not being found out. For each one that is uncovered, how many are not?

  • bill says:

    isn't an ORI finding of misconduct pretty much the end of the career in academic NIH funded research?
    Great question, and one I wish a lot more people would take a lot more seriously.
    In my experience you pretty much need a volunteered confession to get a finding of misconduct out of the ORI -- hell, you need that much to get them to investigate in the first place, then the perp practically has to beg for a finding against him/her, or they'll let it slide. And that's the Fed ORI -- don't get me started on the local incorruptibles or I'll start to sound like SRivlin. (With whom, btw, I agree on many more things now that I have seen how the ORI process "operates" at local and fed levels.)
    So, on the rare occasion when the ORI cannot avoid finding misconduct, what happens to the perp?
    I would really, really like to see a formal study of this question.

  • bill says:

    The above should read: "In my limited experience" -- one case, all the way from local to fed. Not me, a friend (no, really! stop laughing dammit!).
    So yeah, limited experience. And I wouldn't wish *extensive* experience on anyone...

  • David says:

    if the research publication had involved an FDA regulated drug or device, the investigator could be debared by FDA from further submissions. That would have ended any career in pharma industry research. See http://www.fda.gov/opacom/laws/fdcact/fdcact3.htm for a list of actions that can lead to debarment - note that academic fraud (not involving a regulated drug or device) doesn't seem to be covered.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    In the past, on this very blog, I exposed the name of a scientist who was investigated by his own university and was found guilty of a major scientific misconduct. His case was submitted to the ORI by the uniiversity. The ORI investigated and was penalized him by ordering him to retract several papers (some in Cell), nothing else. Despite the "light" penalty by the ORI, the university fired him. His old boss, who moved to another university as a department chair, hired him as a full professor and shortly thereafter the fraudster was awarded an endowed chair in that department.

  • Katkinkate says:

    I pity any other researchers who used his work as a major reference for their own. They are going to have to revise whatever they've done in light of the news. I reckon part of the penalty for this sort of fraud should be some recompense to any researcher who relied on the false data/findings for their work.

  • Nobody's fessed up yet in the Lyme crymes arena and that's the hugest one of all, given the implications with HIV and tuberculosis.
    Kathleen M. Dickson
    http://www.actionlyme.org

  • PalMD says:

    As a physician, i must warn readers that clicking on the above link may lead to having your head asplode.

  • Tom Cruise says:

    Those Lyme crazies are totally out there. Everybody knows it's about the body Thetans.

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