Top Science Scandals of 2011

A list of this year’s most high-profile retractions and controversies in science

By Tia Ghose | December 19, 2011

 

Science is no stranger to controversy. This year, some high profile scientists have been accused of widespread misconduct, while other headline-grabbing research has been retracted after technical errors or sloppy techniques were pointed out by critics.The scientific field may deal with aftershocks of the misconduct or retraction for years.

Here are five of the biggest science scandals of the year, as well as updates on some of the juiciest scandals of years past.

Five New Scandals in 2011:

More than 100 retractions expected

The work of Diederik Stapel, who headed the Institute for Behavioral Economics Research at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, epitomizes the old saying that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Stapel routinely came out with counterintuitive findings that seemed to capture human nature, peppering the headlines of media outlets around the world. But at least 30 of Stapel’s papers were retracted after evidence of massive data fabrication was uncovered, and many scientists expect that number to continue to grow. In total, more than 100 published papers could be affected by the fraud. Among the most novel of his findings to be retracted: that thoughts of meat make people surly, and that a chaotic environment makes people more likely to stereotype.

Mouse virus and chronic fatigue

The link between a mouse leukemia virus and chronic fatigue syndrome made waves when it was first announced in 2009. But after several labs failed to recreate the link, the paper, which was cited 200 times, was retracted. The story took a turn for the dramatic when Whittemore Peterson Institute director Judy Mikovits, who led the retracted 2009 study, refused to hand over key lab notebooks. She allegedly had an underling take the notebooks, then skipped town to California. She has beenarrested on counts of felony theft,  jailed overnight, and is now awaiting trial.

Short-lived longevity paper

Boston University biostatistician Paolo Sebastiani retracted a splashy paper identifying 19 genes associated with extreme longevity in centenarians. Within days of publication, critics wondered whether the strong correlation they found was due to an error in the sequencing chip the team used. After reworking their data to eliminate the source of error, the researchers found that the magnitude of the correlation was less impressive, and Science ultimately retracted the paper, which was cited 25 times in just a year. The researchers have resubmitted the revised findings to another journal.

Arsenic-based life

In late 2010, NASA researcher Felisa Wolfe-Simon and colleagues reportedly uncovered a species of bacteria in Mono Lake that not only survived in unusually high levels of arsenic and low levels of phosphorus, but also appeared to incorporate arsenic into its DNA backbone. However, critics were soon questioning the results, citing poor DNA extraction techniques and a supposedly phosphate-free growth medium which actually did contain phosphate. Science published 8 technical comments about the work in May, though the paper, which has been cited 26 times, has yet to be retracted.

Climate change-up

A controversial climate change paper was retracted when it was found to contain passages lifted from other sources, including Wikipedia. The paper, published by climate change skeptic Edward Wegman of George Mason University in Computational Statistics and Data Analysis in 2008, showed that climatology is an inbred field where most researchers collaborate with and review each other’s work. But a resourceful blogger uncovered evidence of plagiarism, and the journal retracted the paper, which was cited 8 times, in May.

 

Five Updates of High Profile Cases from 2010:

University president retracts paper

Virologist Naoki Mori of the University of the Ryukyus in Japan was suspended from his job last year for image duplication that led to the retraction of 20 papers. Now it seems that one of the papersbeing retracted, a report on the discovery of a downregulator of apoptosis published in Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications, was co-authored by the president of the university, Teruo Iwamasa. The president denies knowing anything about the image duplication. The study was cited 5 times.

The not-so-moral mind

Harvard cognition researcher Mark Hauser resigned in July, after his colleagues voted to bar him from teaching this fall and restrict his research duties. In his letter, he cites private sector opportunities as well as an interest in working with at-risk teenagers. The well-known researcher, whose work includes Moral Minds, retracted a 2002 Cognition paper last year showing that cotton-top tamarins could generalize patterns. Questions were also raised about two other papers, one of which was corrected, while the findings for the other were confirmed.

Immune system fraud

Another paper from immunologist Sylvia Bulfone-Paus has been retracted for incorrect image information. Last year, the Research Center Borstel director retracted 12 articles and was forced to step down after an investigation found widespread data and image manipulation. That investigation pointed to two former post-docs in her lab, Elena Bulanova and Vadim Budagian, as the culprits, but the newly retracted paper, which was cited 5 times, does not include Bulanova or Budaigian as co-authors and predates Bulfone-Paus’s tenure at the Research Center Borstel.

Duke University sued

The families of breast cancer patients who died are suing Duke University for fraudulently and negligently allowing a flawed cancer trial to continue. The patients were enrolled in a trial led by oncologist Anil Potti, who last year admitted to pretending to be a Rhodes Scholar and to fabricating a statistical analysis of chemotherapy response in breast cancer. The plaintiffs claim that Duke knew of problems with Potti and his colleague cancer geneticist Joseph Nevins’ work, but allowed the trial to continue.

Science saboteur

In May, the Office of Research Integrity announced its finding that postdoc Vipul Bhrigu is guilty of misconduct. Grad student Heather Ames thought she was going crazy when her experimental results kept messing up. But after conducting experiments in her boyfriends’ lab and getting solid results, she suspected foul play. Sure enough, her colleague Brighu was caught on tape sabotaging her samples. In July 2010 he pled guilty to malicious destruction of property and received 6 months of probation and a $10,000 fine.

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