A story in the online version of The Scientist is sparking calls from readers that academic fraud be criminalized, with the journal now polling readers.
The original story documentedsome $23 million (US) in grants handed out to researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who lied about their methodology and falsified data in at least 16 journal articles. The story is based on records from the US Department of Health's Office of Research Integrity.
The scientists, Judith Thomas and Juan Contreras, formerly at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), falsely reported that they performed double kidney removals on several rhesus macaques in experiments designed to test the effectiveness of two immune suppressing drugs -- Immunotoxin FN18-CRM9 and 15-deoxyspergualin (15-DSG) -- in preventing rejection of the a single transplanted kidney.
The experimental protocol was to remove one intrinsic kidney, replacing it with a transplant and starting the monkeys on immunosuppresants, and then remove the other intrinsic kidney a month later, according to Richard Marchase, UAB's vice president of research. "What occurred in a good number of these animals was that [Contreras and Thomas] never performed the second surgery," Marchase told The Scientist. In a statement emailed to The Scientist Marchase called the misconduct "a very serious offense."
Thomas's and Contreras's research was funded with more than $23 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health. UAB officials learned that Contreras and Thomas had left one native kidney intact in at least 32 animals -- which allowed those animals to live and inflated the apparent effectiveness of the drugs -- on January 27, 2006, when Thomas reported that she found an experimental monkey with one of its native kidneys intact and blamed Contreras for the mistake.
The scale of the fraud and the implications of the falsified results -- patients could have ended up getting dangerously wrong treatment -- led to readers of the original story going onto the Scientist web site to call for criminal fraud charges to be laid, prompting the journal to poll readers for their thoughts.
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