The academic blogosphere is buzzing with the recent discovery of a major incident of academic fraud. Dr. Scott Reuben published 21 papers over the course of 12 years that have been implicated in the fraud, making this one of the largest cases of academic fraud ever discovered. Worse yet, Dr. Reuben’s research is in medicine, throwing a primary method of post-surgical treatment into disarray.
Not everything about this story is bad. First, the fraud was discovered because science is self-correcting. This feature is what makes science such a powerful tool. Specifically, Dr. Reuben had recently submitted two study abstracts, but the internal reviewer at his medical center discovered that he had failed to obtain approval to do human research for those studies from the IRB. Any research on human subjects is required to receive approval from the sponsoring institution’s IRB, detailing the exact protocols and experiments to be performed in order to make sure that any such research is ethical. Even altering a questionnaire can result in significant penalties. The internal reviewer noted discrepancies and irregularites in some of Dr. Reuben’s other papers, triggering a full scale review. Another positive is that Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company that produces the medicines implicated by this scandal and has funded at least some of the research, has announced that they will be releasing an annual list of doctors to whom they have funded more than $500 the previous year. Although the monitoring period will not begin until July 1st of this year, it creates a more transparent system so that potential conflicts of interest are more readily apparent. Finally, due to the sweeping nature of the fraud, this may be the tipping point in getting a central database of ongoing medical studies. This database would permit tracking of medical studies so that negative and inconclusive studies don’t get buried by publisher bias towards positive studies.
The research now believed to be fraudulent established the primary protocol for administering non-narcotic analgesia for certain surgeries. In layman’s terms, these studies are how we determine what painkillers and their doses following surgery, without using opiates like morphine. Although the existing protocols are safe, new studies will have to be commissioned in order to find out whether the protocols are effective and if they need to be altered. In the meantime, other methods, once thought to be less safe or less effective, will have to be used. This sets us back several years, at best. This is devastating news.
Even worse, it is likely that several pseudo-science groups will attempt to use this fraud to promote their agenda. What makes this particularly galling is that pseudo-science is endemic with fraud, yet they will rally around the fraudulent researcher and defend him against all evidence. A recent example of this behavior is the response to the revelation that Andrew Wakefield’s paper implicating vaccines in autism was based on fraudulent data. Compare the responses:
- Dr. Reuben: scientists immediately withdraw the offending papers, discard the results, and immediately look for ways to uncover fraud earlier
- Dr. Wakefield: pseudo-scientists immediately attack the person who discovered the fraud, circulate a petition supporting Wakefield, and try to cover up the fraud
Another ugly aspect, independent of concerns about pseudo-science, is that this undermines public trust in medicine and the government. Many people will assume that the medications are unsafe, even in other applications that are not implicated. Funding for science and medicine is jeopardized as well.