07/15/2014 06:37 EDT | Updated 09/14/2014 05:59 EDT

Should research fraud be treated as a crime? Toronto expert says Yes

TORONTO - If you perpetrate a fraud in most walks of life, you risk facing criminal charges. But that rarely happens to scientists who commit research fraud.

A new debate in a scientific journal questions whether that ought to change. Published by the journal BMJ — formerly the British Medical Journal — the point-counterpoint-style article explores a problem that dogs academia, wastes precious research funds and potentially puts the lives of people who need medical treatment in danger.

For Dr. Zulfiqar Bhutta the answer is clear — though he acknowledges his view won't be universally embraced in the academic world.

"Our fraternity is not very united when it comes to washing our dirty linen in public," Bhutta, co-director of the Centre for Global Child Health at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, said in an interview.

"(But) when somebody is determined to commit something like this and does, and if it is brought to light, then I think the full weight of law needs to come on that person."

Bhutta, who is on the advisory board of the journal, said the idea for the article stemmed from a discussion he and his colleagues had recently about scientific misconduct, of which fraud is one component.

In his argument that scientific fraud ought to be treated as a criminal offence, Bhutta pointed to cases of individual and pharmaceutical industry fraud.

British doctor Andrew Wakefield linked the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine with autism in a study that drove down acceptance of the vaccine and led to a resurgence of the diseases, particularly measles, in developing countries. The study has been widely repudiated and expunged from the medical literature; Wakefield was stripped of his licence. He had been working on an alternative to the vaccine he impugned.

South Korean stem cell researcher Hwang Woo-suk was forced to resign from Seoul National University after his work was discovered to have been faked — though he's since returned to academia and publishes prodigiously.

There are a few cases where charges have been laid. Iowa State University researcher Dong-Pyou Han, who was working on an HIV vaccine, has been charged with four counts of making false statements after it came to light he falsified data. Han had hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding from the U.S. government.

Scott Reuben, an American anesthetist whose fraudulent pain studies influenced clinical practice for years, was sentenced to six months in jail. And the Indian pharmaceutical company Ranbaxy was fined US$500 million for data falsification.

Bhutta believes there should be more of those kinds of consequences for scientists who deliberately commit fraud, whether it is reporting on studies that never took place, manipulating the outcome of research or misrepresenting a clinical trial's findings.

However, research fraud is typically handled within an academic institution, treated as an internal matter. "Individuals generally get off with just a slap on the wrist at the time and at the most a dismissal from service," said Bhutta.

Dr. Julian Crane, director of the Wellington Asthma Research Group at the University of Otago in Wellington, New Zealand, countered Bhutta's argument.

He suggested the system has to operate on trust — and imposing the threat of criminal sanctions would undermine the effort.

"Criminalizing research misconduct is a sad, bad, even mad idea that will only undermine the trust that is an essential component of research and requires good governance, not criminal investigators," he wrote.

Bhutta doesn't find that argument persuasive. And neither does Ivan Oransky, co-founder of the website Retraction Watch, which has been recording cases of scientific retractions — and reporting on the back stories behind them — for the past four years.

Oransky said increasingly countries are looking to the notion of levelling criminal charges in cases of research fraud. It's a reflection, he suggested, of the frustration politicians feel toward academic institutions which have not done enough to stamp out research fraud.

"If scientists would rather sweep all this under the rug ... they're protecting fraud," said Oransky, who is also global editorial director at Medpage Today, a medical news website for physicians.

"We really wouldn't put up with that in any other field."