Our last post began a somewhat juicy story about scientists gone bad. Just to recap, this particular scandal happened in the early 1990’s, and involved a Department Head at a large university known for its excellence in basic science research as well as its medical school.
As noted, while there might not be any innocents to protect, we’ll be referring to the professor/department head in question by the fictional name, “Dr. Rupert.”
When we left off, we were explaining that, at the time, many researchers had been working on developing an animal model for Alzheimer’s disease- with little success. To much fanfare, Dr. Rupert claimed that he had succeeded on this important development and his work appeared as the cover story in a major peer-reviewed journal, complete with a sexy cover photo of Alzheimer-afflicted rodent cells. It wasn’t long, though, before Dr. Rupert’s scientific peers began asking a lot of questions about Dr. Rupert’s data.
For starters, many researchers were puzzled by Dr. Rupert’s photographs of ‘mouse brain tissue.’ Keep in mind that many researchers who work in the Alzheimer’s field study human autopsy tissue, as well as rodent tissue. So, many of those researchers were familiar with the morphology of both human and rodent brain tissue. And, to those researchers, Dr. Rupert’s photos looked a little funky.
It wasn’t any surprise then, that a lot of people started asking Dr. Rupert if they could view his raw data. As far as I understand it, Dr. Rupert at first flatly refused all such requests. And then things began to go very badly for Dr. Rupert.
It just so happens that, at that same point in time, Dr. Rupert was all wrapped up in fighting a landfill project in a suburb near his home. He served as president for a residents’ group fighting the landfill project and was often quoted in the region’s major newspapers as lawsuits over the project ratcheted up.
In one of those “chicken and egg” type scenarios, it isn’t clear if the allegedly false research data or the allegations regarding funding for Dr. Rupert’s anti-landfill group started things rolling. At any rate, federal authorities got involved and began investigating both the allegations of falsifying data and the allegation that Dr. Rupert had used funds from his government research grants for his anti-landfill group and activities (which obviously is a huge no-no).
Later, Dr. Rupert’s paper was retracted from the research journal and he admitted to using rodent tissue and lying that it was human tissue. While I can’t confirm it at this point, I did also hear through the “grapevine” that Dr. Rupert was locked out of the university and his lab while the investigation was ongoing. Dr. Rupert then disappeared from the university. I recall him being interviewed in the newspapers and he claimed that stress and the push to publish made him have some sort of breakdown and to falsify the data. He definitely portrayed himself as a victim. But, what I knew of him (albeit not direct knowledge) seemed at odds with that. Personally, this is just my opinion, but it’s my belief that he falsified data for such a big story because he thought he could get away with it.
I was shocked to learn that Dr. Rupert went on to be dean at a couple of rather well-known universities and that, to this day, he holds a high and esteemed position at a major university. To this day, it still shocks me. Perhaps Dr. Rupert knew the ‘right’ people and was able to have the entire incident swept under the carpet. Who knows.
What I do know, and am also quite shocked by, is that it has been nearly impossible to find any information about the incident- whether on the Internet or in newspaper archives. Archives from the local paper have no articles about the incident. And I do certainly recall many articles, at the time, being written about the incident in that very same local paper. Is it possible for a person to “scrub” unsavory information about them from the Internet? I can’t say, but something certainly seems very, very strange here.
Luckily, there are organizations like Retraction Watch (headed by Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky) to help keep an eye on all the ongoing shenanigans in basic science research. Retraction Watch’s parent organization is the Center For Scientific Integrity.
According to Retraction Watch, there are about 500-600 retractions every year. One recent story posted on Retraction Watch’s site involves allegations of falsifying data, a diabetes researcher, Tulane University and a whole lot of (now dismissed) defamation claims. As with our story, the writers at Retraction Watch had a tough time getting at all of the pertinent details:
We wish we could tell you more details about it—such as what the university’s misconduct investigation found, or how the lawsuit was concluded—but they remain shrouded in mystery. What we know is based on court records from the lawsuit, which we recently obtained through an unrelated public records request. Even without all the details, it’s a long, sordid tale, involving a lot of finger-pointing and allegations of misconduct.
You can read about the whole debacle here.
My ‘favorite’ stories are the ones where researchers use “creative” statistical analyses to obtain the outcome they desire. Those are the most dangerous, in my opinion.
So, go forth, ask questions, demand transparency, accountability and integrity.
And if you’re looking for a cute shirt for your dog, Retraction Watch sells a nice one on its store website on CafePress. Someone once asked why Retraction Watch, doesn’t sell a watch in its store, but it does sell a clock….