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n eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth — a life for a lab book?

In the past few months, China has announced two new crackdowns on research misconduct — one of which could lead to executions for scientists who doctor their data.

Scientists have been sounding alarms for years about the integrity of research in China. One recent survey estimated that 40 percent of biomedical papers by Chinese scholars were tainted by misconduct. Funding bodies there have in the past announced efforts to crack down on fraud, including clawing back money from scientists who cheat on their grants.

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This month, in the wake of a fake peer review scandal that claimed 107 papers by Chinese scholars, the country’s Ministry of Science and Technology proclaimed a “no tolerance” policy for research misconduct — although it’s not clear what that might look like. According to the Financial Times, the ministry said the mass retractions “seriously harmed the international reputation of our country’s scientific research and the dignity of Chinese scientists at large.”

But a prior court decision in the country threatened the equivalent of the nuclear option. In April courts approved a new policy calling for stiff prison sentences for researchers who fabricate data in studies that lead to drug approvals. If the misconduct ends up harming people, then the punishment on the table even includes the death penalty. The move, as Nature explained, groups clinical trial data fraud with counterfeiting so that “if the approved drug causes health problems, it can result in a 10-year prison term or the death penalty, in the case of severe or fatal consequences.”

We’ve long called for sterner treatment of science cheats, including the possibility of jail time — which, by the way, most Americans agree is appropriate. But we can’t support the Chinese solution. Even if we didn’t abhor the death penalty (which we do), the punishment here far outweighs the crime.

Yet if extremity in the name of virtue can be vice, it serves as reminder that science fraud is, simply put, fraud. And when it involves funding — taxpayer or otherwise — that fraud becomes theft. Think about it the same way as you would running a bogus investment fund or kiting checks. So, jail for major offenders — yes. Execution — no.

One objection to our position here might be that financial criminals typically don’t kill anyone — directly, at least. If you drain my bank account or steal my 401(k), I’m still alive. A scientist who cheats on a drug study could, at least in theory, jeopardize the health of the people who take that medication, with potentially fatal consequences.

But the reality is quite different. In the United States, at least, drug approvals hinge on data generated from many scientists or groups of researchers. They never rest on a single person. So unless everyone involved in a study is cheating, a fraudster’s data would stick out if they strayed too much from the aggregate. Ironically, then, to succeed, a would-be fraudster would be most successful if they made their bogus results look like everyone else’s — thus diluting their influence on the outcome of the trial.

And stopping short of capital punishment, jail time for fraud would itself be a big change. According to our own research, only 39 scientists worldwide between 1975 and 2015 received criminal penalties for misdeeds somehow related to their work. However, some of those cases didn’t involve research directly but instead related to incidental infractions, such as misusing funds, bribery, and even murder facilitated by access to cyanide.

And in the United States, fewer than 2 percent of the 250-plus cases of misconduct over the same period reported by the Office of Research Integrity resulted in criminal sanctions. Most of the time, fraudsters earn temporary bans on federal research funding, with some dusting themselves off after a timeout and getting back in the game.

So there’s room to strengthen penalties without taking the draconian step of invoking the death penalty. Some of that may requiring rewriting relevant statutes, to give agencies overseeing research funds more authority. And we acknowledge that not everyone thinks criminal sanctions are a good idea; some have said that such sanctions would only encourage fraudsters to double down on attempts at denial through lawyers, and might even dissuade colleagues from blowing the whistle. That’s certainly possible, but it’s not as though investigators’ close rate is so high at this point anyway.

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  • My Cleveland Clinic surgeon has authored/coauthored over 400 articles in less than 10 years in support of the Intuitive Surgical da Vinci device. Most of these articles were published in foreign journals. Many of his credentials were determined to be fraudulent including a medical license, board certification, credentialing, privileging, fellowships, and outcomes. Articles “authored” by physicians are known to be ghost written by device manufacturers. The data in my surgeon’s work was described by another physician as “invented.” Thousands of patients have been harmed with the da Vinci device. Every country must impose and enforce criminal consequences for such crimes which mislead and harm patients.

  • If I were Michael Mann I wouldn’t be going to China for holidays. And our own Tim Flannery would have to think seriously about that as well.

  • Fake data is like contaminants in a well that had made it undrinkable.
    What do you do to a person who contaminated your well that you depend on for your source of water for drinking ? The punishment should deter other would be fraudsters.

  • Integrity in research is mandatory. Now a days, one can not suppress and manipulate any published scientific documents /information in the name of confidentiality. All documents are available on internet in the public domain. In spite of this, the manipulation of doctorate degree in Geology discipline by a group of serving senior scientists in reputed Government organization, national geoscience awards,extension of service including out standing scientist designation,etc are some of the recent examples of scientific misconducts and frauds in lieu of funding of major research projects to university professors.There are four such fraud cases by AMDER Scientists. It is the greatest responsibility of all the senior citizens, research scholars and Fellows of the Scientific academy to suggest measures to stop such activities. Such group people involved in scientific misconducts should be punished severely so that no one can dare to repeat such scientific misconducts just for their greediness.

  • I’m so disappointed on researchers who took short cuts and fabricate the outcome of their studies as we always believe in their works. Lying about research studies is playing with human lives. Law needs to be strengthen.

    • The article says clearly there is a current policy in China that states punishment for fabricating data could be the death penalty.

  • Imposition of the physical death penalty for research fraud does appear extreme when lifetime banning of the perpetrators from research funding will suffice. The problem is the moral hazard of too many researchers chasing insufficient money to go around. At one level the policy choice is between providing more money to accommodate researcher desires or pruning their number. Doesn’t it make sense to use unassailable evidence of research fraud as the basis for pruning?

  • You write that “some have said that such sanctions would only encourage fraudsters to double down on attempts at denial through lawyers, and might even dissuade colleagues from blowing the whistle”.
    That’s not a valid argument as the same applies to any crime – fraud, rape, drunk driving.

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