Research fraud is no longer a surprise, as headlines regularly announce a study that once gave false hope to disease sufferers and loved ones has been retracted by another prominent journal. A 2012 review by PubMed found that 67 percent of research retractions were “attributable to scientific misconduct, including fraud of suspected fraud,” and leading researchers weigh in on what should be done.
Considering more than well over half of retracted research is committed intentionally, Dr. Zulfiqar Bhutta, chair of the global child health and policy department and co-director of the Centre for Global Child Health at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, believes the perpetrators need to endure harsher criminal punishment in order to prevent future misconduct.
"Human, social and economic costs are likely considerable," Bhutta said in a press release, adding that the total cost of fraudulent research is unknown. "Additional deterrence through punitive measures such as criminal proceedings should be added to the repertoire of measures available."
Investigations alone cost between $116,160 to $2,192,620 per case. According to Bhutta, aside from the punitive financial burden, the consequences of research fraud are immensely damaging to the health status of entire countries, such as the “incalculable” global ruin of Andrew Wakefield’s infamously fraudulent research paper on vaccinations’ link to autism. Distrust of all vaccines loomed as a new international climate raining falsehoods.
Wakefield, a former British surgeon and medical researcher, single-handedly upended the reliance people put into vaccinations by hypothesizing they had the ability to cause autism. In 1998, he wrote a paper on his concerns about the safety of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and its relationship with the increasing numbers of autism diagnosis.
The study was based on 12 children, theorizing if the vaccines were given together they could alter a child’s immune system by allowing the measles virus to wreak havoc in the intestines. The proteins that, theoretically, release from the intestines could reach the brain and harm neurons that were responsible for autism. The outcry of parents and the medical community alike could be heard around the world. Vaccinations plummeted and now childhood diseases, which were nearly eradicated from fear of contagion, such as whooping cough and measles, have been sprouting up diagnoses all over the nation.
By 2010, Wakefield had arguably become one of the most despised and yet revered researchers of his time, his research, which was published in The Lancet, was retracted. He was pulled from the medical register and no longer allowed to legally practice medicine in the UK.
It made no difference. The damage was already done and Wakefield had millions of angry autism followers who staunchly believed in his falsified research, which cost him three dozen charges and $400,000 out of his pocket. "Although many perpetrators of research fraud never return to academic life; others may claw their way back to active research," Bhutta said.
Conversely, increasing criminal sanctions is not the answer, Dr. Julian Crane from the Department of Medicine at the University of Otago in New Zealand said in the press release. Crane believes implementing severe consequences wouldn’t serve as a deterrent, but instead would undermine the trust of fellow researchers.
When investigating into researchers, it’s also important to sift through the research and determine what is fraud and what is simply a case of incompetence, erroneous research results, and misunderstanding data. Crane agreed research misconduct does incur immeasurable consequences of vast and unknown ripples through the pond of public health knowledge. However, he doesn’t agree police intervention would prevent a future splash.
According to Crane, one in every 18,234 published abstracts are retracted because of proven or suspected research fraud, which he concludes “seems refreshingly small.”
In comparison to the dauntingly high volume of intentional and manipulated research used to reach a desired outcome, yes it is a smaller percentage, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t do damage.
Wakefield remains a free man and currently resides in the United States, making money from various support groups who believe in his theories. His retracted research paper is believed to have been manipulated for the purpose of making MMR vaccinations the enemy and autism as the perfect scapegoat to blame. After making MMR the martyr, he applied for a measles vaccination patent that he claimed was safer, which led many to question his initial intentions.