Scrutiny exposes potential cracks in research system

Two hospitals, five researchers and 76 research papers were called out in the last few weeks for inaccurate data and copied images — shining light on a potentially broken system of scientific research.

In late January, the Boston-based Dana-Farber Cancer Institute notified research journals that it desired to retract six studies and correct 31 papers — including those co-written by top executives — as part of an ongoing probe. More than 50 papers are subject to review after findings shone a spotlight on alleged data manipulation in papers written by Dana-Farber President and CEO Laurie Glimcher, MD; Executive Vice President William Hahn, MD, PhD; Senior Vice President for Experimental Medicine Irene Ghobrial, MD; and Boston-based Harvard Medical School professor Kenneth Anderson, MD.

In February, Sam Yoon, MD, chief of the surgical oncology division at New York City-based Columbia University Irving Medical Center, faced scrutiny after a blogger found concerns with the images and data published in many of his research papers. Since 2008, Dr. Yoon has collaborated on 26 articles that have been flagged for containing suspect data and images. 

The man who brought all these cases to light is Sholto David, PhD, an independent molecular biologist. Dr. David is a writer for the blog "For Better Science," which is dedicated to highlighting research integrity. 

These cases highlight a broken system for policing scientific research, experts told The New York Times. It has been going on for years, in part due to the large volume of studies publishers put out. The growing number of medical journals has fueled demand for more research articles, but journals operate as publishing companies and often respond slowly or not at all to articles that show issues. Retractions are rare, and papers with problems continue to be published.

"The journals do the bare minimum," Elisabeth Bik, PhD, a microbiologist who also studies research integrity, told the Times. "There's no oversight."

When problems are found, publishers and systems tend to keep retractions quiet to save face, according to the Times report. In Dr. Yoon's case, he was notified by the editors when his articles were retracted, but he did not alert New York City-based Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where he worked at the time. The center is now investigating the articles.

Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City — where Dr. Yoon works now — told Becker's it "is fully committed to upholding the highest standards of ethics and to rigorously maintaining the integrity of our research. Columbia thoroughly reviews any concerns about scientific integrity brought to our attention in accordance with institutional policies and applicable regulations." 

Dr. David examined 16 years of Dr. Yoon's published research and found 10 articles that allegedly showed repeated use of identical or overlapping black-and-white images of cancer cells supposedly under different conditions. 

"There's no reason to have done that unless you weren't doing the work," Dr. David told the Times.

At Dana-Farber, Barrett Rollins, MD, PhD, Dana-Farber's research integrity officer and chief scientific officer emeritus, told Becker's the institution was already reviewing potential data errors in a number of manuscripts listed in the blog before its publication. In "97% of those cases," action has already been taken, Dr. Rollins said. He said the presence of errors does not necessarily mean the authors intended to deceive.

"Our experience is that errors are often unintentional and do not rise to the level of misconduct," he said. 

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