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Alternatives to jail for scientific fraud

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Mark Tuttle pointed me to this article by Amy Ellis Nutt, who writes:

Since 2000, the number of U.S. 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 U.S. 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.

While criminal cases against scientists are rare, they are increasing. Jail time is even rarer, but not unheard of. Last July, Dong-Pyou Han, a former biomedical scientist at Iowa State University, pleaded guilty to two felony charges of making false statements to obtain NIH research grants and was sentenced to more than four years in prison.

Han admitted to falsifying the results of several vaccine experiments, in some cases spiking blood samples from rabbits with human HIV antibodies so that the animals appeared to develop an immunity to the virus.

“The court cannot get beyond the breach of the sacred trust in this kind of research,” District Judge James Gritzner said at the trial’s conclusion. “The seriousness of this offense is just stunning.”

In 2014, the Office of Research Integrity had imposed its own punishment. Although it could have issued a lifetime funding ban, it only barred Han from receiving federal dollars for three years.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) was outraged. “This seems like a very light penalty for a doctor who purposely tampered with a research trial and directly caused millions of taxpayer dollars to be wasted on fraudulent studies,” he wrote the agency. The result was a federal probe and Han’s eventual sentence.

I responded that I think community service would make more sense. Flogging seems like a possibility too. Jail seems so destructive.

I do agree with Sen. Grassley that a 3-year ban on federal dollars is not enough of a sanction in that case. Spiking blood samples is pretty much the worst thing you can do, when it comes to interfering with the scientific process. If spiking blood samples only gives you a 3-year ban, what does it take to get a 10-year ban? Do you have to be caught actually torturing the poor bunnies? And what would it take to get a lifetime ban? Spiking blood samples plus torture plus intentionally miscalculating p-values?

The point is, there should be some punishments more severe than the 3-year ban but more appropriate than prison, involving some sort of restitution. Maybe if you’re caught spiking blood samples you’d have to clean pipettes at the lab every Saturday and Sunday for the next 10 years? Or you’d have to check the p-value computations in every paper published in Psychological Science between the years of 2010 and 2015?


  1. Dogen says:

    Jail looks right to me in this particular case. He was apparently trying to show that a particular vaccine was promising against HIV/AIDS. It’s not an exaggeration to say that lives are at stake, as well as millions of dollars of research money. Not just the money he spent, but the money and time of others who would follow up based on his “results “.

    Jail for himmicanes or powerposeurs, if proven fraudulent? Probably not.

  2. Jacob says:

    >Since 2000, the number of U.S. academic fraud cases in science has risen dramatically

    The article doesn’t say, but how does this compare to the increase in scientific publications in general? The rate there has been growing exponentially as well.

    I believe the retraction rate has been going up too, in some sense that might be a good thing, as in indicates people are scrutinizing science more closely and not just taking things for granted (well, some people at least).

  3. Clyde Schechter says:

    “Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) was outraged. “This seems like a very light penalty for a doctor who purposely tampered with a research trial and directly caused millions of taxpayer dollars to be wasted on fraudulent studies,”

    While I agree that what Han did is outrageous, and am inclined to agree with Dogen that more than just money was at stake her, warranting a serious approach, I can’t help but wonder where the Congressional outrage was when the big banks and investment houses engaged in fraud on an industrial scale and torpedoed the entire economy. There were no consequences for that fraud, which was far larger and far more consequential. If the legal perspective is that there are no rules against fraud for them, then why should it be different for us?

    To be clear, I think fraud should be severely punished in both contexts, but the same standards should apply in all sectors.

    • gdanning says:

      From 2012:

      “In recent weeks, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) has criticized the Department of Justice’s handling of executives that some argue are responsible for the financial crisis.

      Sen. Grassley, the ranking minority member of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, held a hearing in February that looked at mortgage fraud, foreclosure abuse and lending discrimination practices. During his opening statement at that hearing, Sen. Grassley stated, “The department’s message is that crime does pay. They also invite crimes of this sort against similar future victims. How are the department’s enormous resources being used?”

      In his statement at the hearing, Sen. Grassley expressed anger that no criminal charges were brought by the DOJ Criminal Division against former Countrywide Financial CEO Angelo Mozilo. Sen. Grassley stated, ‘The Justice Department has brought no criminal cases against any of the major Wall Street banks or executives who are responsible for the financial crisis.” He concluded his statement by saying, “All that matters is results – prosecutions and conviction. The American people are still waiting.'”

      • Clyde Schechter says:

        I specifically referred to “Congressional outrage” and did not refer back to Senator Grassley precisely because I was unsure of what, if anything, he has said or done in connection with the financial crisis. I do know that some members of Congress wanted to see steps taken, and for the most part, I have not kept track of who they are. Where I live, I will never have the opportunity to vote for or against Grassley. Nevertheless, I’m glad to know that he has a position more consonant with my own.

        The fact remains that only a handful of investigations were launched into financial fraud by either the Obama administration or Congress, and those fingered only low-level peripheral figures. Without regard to specific government officials’ individual positions, I think the substance of my post remains accurate and pertinent.

  4. Were you thinking of the Mikado?

    “My object all sublime
    I shall achieve in time—
    To let the punishment fit the crime,
    The punishment fit the crime;
    And make each prisoner pent
    Unwillingly represent
    A source of innocent merriment,
    Of innocent merriment!”

    Then there are all sorts of possibilities in the verses. (Note: I am not implying that the “grit” folks, authors of monosyllabically-titled books, or science reporters are committing fraud; I just saw a possibility in the rhyme.)

    All talkers on the glamorous stage
    Who laud the magic of “grit”
    Are made to wash
    With hominy mash
    And praise it for keeping them fit;
    The biomedical lab researcher
    Who spikes the rabbits’ blood
    Shall pay her debts
    By cleaning pipettes
    And mopping the floor of mud;
    The author who in monosyllable
    Titles each blockbuster book
    Will travel thrice
    Through plains of ice
    With naught but an oaken crook;
    The seasoned yet gullible science reporter
    Who bellows “Research has shown….”
    Shall spend afternoons
    Inflating balloons
    Until they burst, overblown….

    My object all sublime, etc.

  5. Joe says:

    Why a three year funding ban sounds pretty light for this kind of offense, isn’t it more or less equivalent to a lifetime ban? Would any reputable funding agency give money to someone found to have spiked blood samples? But I agree restitution and community service would be warranted as well.

  6. Paul Alper says:

    When it comes to fraud and punishment, note that the Cleveland Clinic sells reiki services and homeopathy kits:

    The above link also contains comments from readers who are convinced that homeopathy works and it is a conspiracy on the part of the medical establishment to prevent the public from using such alternative/integrative medecine. From

    can be found the useful term, “quackademic medicine.”
    The one positive aspect of homeopathy is that overdosing is impossible.

    • Keith O'Rourke says:


      Too high a dose of water can be fatal (a favorite curiosity for toxicologists but couple deaths a year in the US I believe).

    • Rahul says:

      Heavy metals at super-dilution? Residual toxicity?

      • jrc says:

        Background to Rahul’s post: Super Dilution was the name of Rahul’s high school Heavy Metal band and Residual Toxicity was the name of my high school Punk band. We were a way better band than his, as evidenced by our numerous victories over them in the Annual Battle of the Bands. We smashed like 8 times as many guitars on stage as they did (24 to 3). Their big gimmick was just to spray lithium-water on the crowd, but all that ever did was slightly calm many of them down while mildly disorienting several others. The funny part, of course, is that lithium is a light metal, but no one ever got the joke.

  7. Jonathan says:

    In MA, a person in the state crime lab turned out to be faking tests, etc. and was sentenced to jail. That example makes clear to me that it wasn’t a case of a person not doing a job but of interfering with intent or altering with intent to put people at risk of going to jail. Her work or lack of also doomed prosecutions in a large number of cases, which is not good for the public.

    So I think jail is the appropriate remedy because human beings would be placed at risk, money would be stolen or, more accurately, taken under false pretenses and this person willingly undertook a role of specific legal and social responsibility. That is criminal behavior, not something to be excused or even punished as “academic fraud”. Money matters in crime: they put you in jail for stealing it and this was stealing it. Jeopardizing human lives is a crime when done with intent and this jeopardized human lives by intentional acts.

  8. numeric says:

    What’s the punishment for misinterpreting p-values?

  9. Thomas says:

    I don’t like the idea of throwing scientists in jail for fraud (or even flogging them, which I agree is more humane). I think what is needed is a reduction of the incentives to commit fraud, not install stronger disincentives. At the end of the day, there should be no career advantage to a scientist who produces a result that can’t be replicated.

    Suppose the SETI institute spiked their data with an intelligent signal. Well, it would only be detectable in their data. Any other telescope you point at the same star would come up empty. There should simply be no excitement about the “signal” until it has been independently verified.

    Sure, an elaborate conspiracy by many observatories or laboratories could concoct an entirely fraudulent result and replicate it and I could see why you’d want to criminalize this.

    I have to admit, however, that I probably believe similar things about finance. The threat of criminal charges installs a presumption of trust in financial transactions. My hunch is that we’d have a healthier financial system if all trust was earned.

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