Liability for Fraudulent Research?

The most recent issue of the New Scientist features an interesting interview with former editor of the British Medical Journal Richard Smith (1991-2004) in which he suggests that fraud in science should be criminalized.  Mr. Smith argues rightfully that outright fraud is a crime for three reasons:

  • Researchers have been given a substantial amount of money to perform honest work; misappropriation of those funds to produce fraudulent results “really is no different from financial fraud or theft;”
  • The criminal justice system is better equipped to gather and weigh evidence of fraud than universities or researchers’ employers; and
  • The scientific community hasn’t done enough to deal adequately with research misconduct.

Scientific fraud has serious public health consequences. Mr. Smith cites examples such as the well-known fraudulent data by Dr. Andrew Wakefield that in large part began the misleading narrative that vaccines cause autism.  Though the paper was retracted by the journal Lancet after its findings were proven to be false, the damage was done. Vaccine rates dropped and infectious diseases on the decline like whooping cough and measles are starting to reappear.

There should be consequences for publishing bogus research. We aren’t talking about prosecuting scientists who might make honest mistakes. But in cases in which data has been doctored and knowingly falsified it might be applicable. Yet, as Mr. Smith points out, many researchers who have committed fraud have continued their careers without real repercussions.

Perhaps if researchers were forced to return grants or subjected to criminal penalties for promoting false data (or their employers held financially liable), it would reduce the alarming amount of fraud in the scientific community. Mr. Smith’s argument is certainly a valuable addition to the ongoing conversation about how to increase accountability in science.