We'd all like to think that science around the world is being carried out by good, honest, hard-working researchers, who only publish what they know to be the truth according to the standards set by the scientific method, but, just like any industry, science has its bad eggs too.
Case in point: Bruce Murdoch, an Australian neuroscientist who’s just received a two-year suspended sentence after pleading guilty to 17 fraud-related charges, relating to how he falsified data to hype-up a 'breakthrough' treatment for Parkinson’s disease.
Why hype up a new treatment that you know doesn’t actually fulfil any of the promises you’re touting? Two words: grant money.
In a trial at the Brisbane Magistrates Court in Queensland, Australia last week, Murdoch was found guilty of fraudulently receiving a $20,000 grant to fund his bogus research - which he knew had no actual basis in fact.
He then tried to get away with it by forging content forms from study participants, "one of whom was dead at the time the alleged took place", Amy Ellis Nutt reports for The Washington Post.
The former University of Queensland researcher co-authored a 2011 paper published in the high-profile, peer-reviewed Journal of Neurology, in which he reported the results of a clinical trial that supposedly put this new Parkinson’s treatment through its paces, with stunning results.
But Magistrate Tina Privitera, who resided over the case, told the court that there’s no evidence that this clinical trial ever actually happened - Murdoch made it all up.
"Your research was such as to give false hope to Parkinson's researchers and Parkinson's sufferers," Privitera told Murdoch in court, adding that Murdoch "knew the research was false".
His co-author on the paper, speech pathologist Caroline Barwood, has also been charged with fraud. The University of Queensland has so far returned the first of two instalments of a $300,000 bursary awarded to her by the Lions Medical Research Foundation.
The case came to light when an unidentified whistleblower made a complaint to the Australian Crime and Corruption Commission that there was no evidence that their clinical trial was ever carried out.
Back in 2014, the journal Aphasiology retracted a paper by Barwood and Murdoch based on falsified claims regarding a multiple sclerosis clinical trial.
Murdoch has now been suspended from practising for two years, but he reportedly only narrowly missed out on jail time. And while his case is certainly very rare, even on an international scale, academic fraud like this is on the rise, big-time.
"Since 2000, the number of US academic fraud cases in science has risen dramatically. Five years ago, the journal Nature tallied the number of retractions in the previous decade and revealed they had shot up 10-fold. About half of the retractions were based on researcher misconduct, not just errors, it noted.
The US Office of Research Integrity, which investigates alleged misconduct involving National Institutes of Health funding, has been far busier of late. Between 2009 and 2011, the office identified three three cases with cause for action. Between 2012 and 2015, that number jumped to 36."
The Courier Mail reports that there was no precedent for Murdoch’s particular case, which could partly explain why he was not sentenced to jail time, if these trends continue, we could see more cases like Dong-Pyou Han, a former biomedical scientist from Iowa State University, who was sentenced to more than four years in prison for falsifying the results of several HIV vaccine experiments.
"The court cannot get beyond the breach of the sacred trust in this kind of research," District Judge James Gritzner said at the trial in July 2015. "The seriousness of this offence is just stunning."
While we’re certainly fortunate that these kinds of cases are few and far between, the disparity between punishments is significant, with Han originally only being banned from receiving funding for three years in an initial 2014 trial. Meanwhile, three Italian researchers almost went to jail last year for unwittingly publishing misleading data.
What courts will need to consider in the future is the effect that deliberately publishing false data - particularly related to health - can have on the public. Because we all know what happened when British physician Andrew Wakefield published a fraudulent research paper in 1998 linking the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism and bowel disease. He was stripped of his medical licence, and found guilty of "abusing a position of trust as a medical practitioner", but society is still paying the price.
The Washington Post reports that no national or international database of scientific retractions exists to help us keep track of this, and the best resource we have right now is the Retraction Watch blog, run by the Centre for Scientific Integrity, which publishes an unofficial list of the worst offenders.
But late last year, the blog announced that it was partnering with Centre for Open Science to create a new, more comprehensive database of retractions that will be easily searchable by the public, so even if we still have to figure out how to deal with fraudulent researchers, we can at least be better informed about their actions.