What happens to serial scientific fraudsters after they’re discovered? (UPDATED)

A disproportionate amount of scientific fraud is committed by a small number of serial fraudsters (see here for a summary of the data on scientific fraud). What happens to those serial fraudsters after they’re discovered? We can all recall cases of serial fraudsters who admitted their guilt, and serial fraudsters who denied everything and fought tooth and nail against their accusers. And we can all recall cases of severe penalties (e.g., firing; rescinding of graduate degrees), and cases of much lighter penalties (e.g., short federal funding bans). But are there any generalizations that emerge if you look at more than a few cases?

To find out, I had a look at the top 27 scientists on the Retraction Watch leaderboard for most-ever retractions.* All have at least 24 retractions for misconduct. I googled for info on those 27. Here’s a summary of what I found out about their fates. Note that my research was quick and so I may have overlooked some information. My counts of, e.g., the number of serial fraudsters who received penalty X, should be considered lower bounds.

  • The 27 people on this list were based in various countries. Most of our readers are in the US, Canada, the EU, or Australia, and I’m sure y’all are especially curious about serial fraudsters from those countries, so: five of the 27 were based in the US, two in EU countries, one in Australia, none in Canada.
  • None of the 27 admitted guilt before substantial investigations were underway, as far as I can tell from my brief research. Apparently, serial fraudsters never confess at the first sign of trouble. Indeed, I only found four who publicly admitted guilt, or partial guilt, at any point: Diederik Stapel (Netherlands), Naoki Mori (Japan), and Scott Reuben (US) admitted guilt; Hyung-In Moon (South Korea) admitted partial guilt. Conversely, I only found two one who fought back hard via the legal system to try to overturn the outcomes of completed misconduct investigations: Jan Hendrik Schön (Germany) and Ali Nazari (US). UPDATE: Previous sentence corrected to remove errors. Ali Nazari was based in Australia at the time he was found to have committed misconduct, and my brief search didn’t indicate that he fought back hard via the legal system. Not sure how I introduced those errors into my notes. My apologies. Thank you to a correspondent for pointing out the errors. /end update.
  • 24 of the 27 received at least one fairly serious penalty I was able to identify, in addition to all the retractions. I couldn’t find any penalties for Adrian Maxim, Dalibor Petkovic (Serbia), or Shahaboddin Shamshirband (Malaysia).
  • The most common penalty I found is being fired from your job, or leaving your job because you’re surely about to be fired. 19 out of 27 definitely either lost or left their jobs after they were found guilty of misconduct by their employers. Conversely, only two definitely kept their jobs: Antonio Orlandi (Italy) and Dalibor Petkovic (Serbia). I couldn’t determine if Yuhji Saitoh (Japan) and Cheng-Wu Chen (Taiwan) lost their jobs, though I suspect they did because each was a collaborator and fellow employee of another scientist on this list who lost his job. I couldn’t determine if A. Salar Alahi (Iran) lost his job. He was suspended from all duties while being investigated by his employer, but I couldn’t determine the outcome of the investigation. I couldn’t find any information at all on Adrian Maxim or Shahaboddin Shamshirband (Malaysia). Yoshihiro Sato (Japan) died before investigation of his misconduct was complete. So I didn’t count him as having lost/left his job, though it sounds like he surely would’ve been fired had he lived. Note that Naoki Mori (Japan) was fired for misconduct, so I counted him as having lost his job, but his uni subsequently rehired him after he took “full responsibility” for what he did.
  • The 19 who definitely lost or left their jobs in the wake of being found guilty of misconduct break down as ten who were fired, three who resigned, two who retired, one who moved to another university (whether after having been fired, I can’t tell), one whose contract was not renewed, and two who lost or left their job in ways I couldn’t determine.
  • I found a few mentions of other penalties that were at least fairly serious, though it’s here that my research is probably least complete. Three of the 27 were criminally investigated; one of those pleaded guilty to a felony and spent 6 months in prison. Two got lifetime bans from their national professional societies. One was publicly reprimanded by his national professional society. One lost his medical license. One lost his PhD. One had to pay fines and restitution totaling over $400,000 USD. One got a 10 year ban from publishing in American Society for Microbiology journals. One got an 8 year ban from any funding or other involvement with the German national scientific funding agency. One got a lifetime ban from participating in US FDA drug approval applications. One lost an EiC position. There’s some overlap in those. In particular, Schön was criminally investigated (not sure of the outcome), lost his PhD**, and got the 8 year funding ban. Reuben’s the one who got prison time, lost his medical license, had to pay a bunch of restitution, and got the lifetime FDA ban.

YMMV whether you find these data heartening or distressing (or both, or neither). On the one hand, very few people on this list kept their jobs. That pleasantly surprised me. Based on my own anecdotal recollections, I was expecting that more would’ve kept their jobs. And as best I can tell, only a couple were brazen/stubborn/dumb/whatever enough to keep fighting once their employers found them guilty of misconduct. Again, that pleasantly surprised me; I had thought it would be common for the worst serial fraudsters to fight tooth and nail to keep their jobs. On the other hand, one can certainly be disappointed that many of them managed to get away with it for so long. Sometimes for years after credible suspicions were first raised publicly and investigations started! And one can certainly be disappointed that the penalties weren’t more severe in some cases. Now, I appreciate the reasons why some of these serial fraudsters were allowed to retire or resign rather than being fired, so personally I’m not too bothered by such cases. Personally, I’m more disappointed that lifetime funding and publication bans seem to be very rare even for the worst serial fraudsters, unless I missed a bunch of them. Ok, I know those bans sometimes would have been ceremonial because the serial fraudster left the field after being discovered. But come on–each of these people faked a lot of research over a period of many years, and had at least two dozen papers retracted. How much more misconduct do you have to commit before funding agencies and journals say “Sorry, we’re never going to trust any of your work again. There are too many other honest scientists who are worth funding and publishing for us to bother giving your work the extra scrutiny it would need”?

It’d be interesting to expand this very small dataset, I think. One could ask questions like, how does the probability of losing your job scale with your number of retractions and other variables?

*The leaderboard actually lists 33 people, but I got tired of going through them after the first 29. And I left out the two of the first 29 who weren’t scientists: a literature prof and…(wait for it)…a Catholic priest!

**I was interested to learn that Schön lost his Ph.D. even though there was no suspicion that he fabricated his Ph.D. research. His Ph.D. was revoked because his subsequent misconduct was so bad that the University of Konstanz decided he was “unworthy” to hold a Ph.D. Schön sued to keep his Ph.D. and won, but the university appealed and a higher court overturned the initial ruling in Schön’s favor. Gotta say that, although I know nothing of the German legal system, I’m impressed that the university not only revoked Schön’s Ph.D. without the Ph.D. research itself having been faked, but appealed the initial ruling in Schön’s favor. Good for them!

34 thoughts on “What happens to serial scientific fraudsters after they’re discovered? (UPDATED)

  1. This is a topic that gets me worked up every Friday when you post a link to *another* retraction of Jonathan Pruitt’s papers (if there is another this Friday, it will be four weeks in a row!).

    As scientists, we tend to view these issues of fraud from the perspective of the research discipline, the students that might be affected, or dead-end lines of research. But perhaps we should see it from the perspective of the academic publishing industry. In any other multi-billion dollar industry, there would be legal consequences for misrepresenting intellectual property. There is a lot of (public) money flowing through the publishing system, so surely someone should be financially accountable for trading in fraudulent information.

    This raises another point about publisher Copyright Transfer Agreements. Are publishers liable for fraudulent papers since they are the holders of the copyright (which they sell to subscribers)? Alternatively, if it can be proven that authors were aware of misconduct when they signed their copyright agreements, should the authors be liable for contractual misrepresentation when signing the transfer agreement?

    • Re: copyright, copyright is about the rights of the creators of written work. As the author, you’re the one who created a scientific paper–even if you created it via fraud. I’m not a lawyer, but from what little I know I don’t think publishers can go after fraudsters for breach of contract related to copyright transfer agreements.

      Re: paying back grant money, institutions do sometimes have to pay some back (since grants technically often go to institutions, not the individual scientists they employ). But I didn’t look into how often institutions have to pay back grant money.

  2. (being caught at) Serial fraud is clearly worse than (being caught) once or twice, just like serial murder is worse than murdering one person. But murdering one person is really really bad, as is perpetrating scientific fraud one time.

    I really appreciate knowing what happened in these high profile cases of serial fraud, and like you am pleasantly surprised that the consequences were fairly serious (though I think there should be yet more done as I argue below). I am, however, pretty distressed at the apparently minimal repercussions (that I’m aware of) for the less-than-serial cases of fraud.

    People will be people everywhere, and scientists are no better, but I feel like we tend to think we’re better, and therefore haven’t developed a rigorous approach either within countries or disciplines to prosecute scientific fraud. Why is it not treated similarly to mail fraud, credit card fraud, loan fraud, counterfeiting or the like? They have penalties including restitution and fines, probation and jail time. Shouldn’t scientist be held just as accountable?

    • “(being caught at) Serial fraud is clearly worse than (being caught) once or twice, just like serial murder is worse than murdering one person. But murdering one person is really really bad, as is perpetrating scientific fraud one time.”

      It’s funny, I was thinking of the analogy to murder just the other day. One thing the analogy highlights is that a crime can be really bad even if it affects very few people. In most times and places, murder is nowhere close to one of the leading causes of death. Analogously, scientific fraud is a really bad offense against science even though only a tiny fraction of papers and grants are fraudulent, only a tiny fraction of scientific funding is wasted on fraud, and fraud is almost never so prevalent or high-profile as to derail scientific research on an important topic.

      I think the answer to the question, “Why isn’t scientific fraud treated like criminal frauds?” is that it’s often not a crime. Ok, misappropriating grants is a crime. But just making up data and writing a scientific paper about it isn’t a crime in any jurisdiction, as far as I’m aware. And I don’t think professional societies, journals, or employers could make it a crime, or crime-like. Scientific societies, journals, and employers have no power to issue fines or send people to prison (nor should they!)

      I guess one alternative model is medical malpractice. Maybe there should be a legal category called “scientific malpractice”, for which scientists could be sued in court? I dunno, I haven’t thought much about that. If we wanted science to go that route, then presumably we’d have to have all the other trappings that go along with that, such as professional licensing requirements that have the force of law behind them. It’s interesting to think about the pluses and minuses of going that route. Though it’s worth noting that it wouldn’t completely get rid of fraud, or even necessarily reduce its prevalence. After all, medical malpractice and other criminal frauds still happen, even though they’re crimes.

      • yeah, there’s no simple path forwards, but I wish it were taken more seriously. Like you said, the harm done to the individuals affected can be pretty immense.

      • I agree that lying per se is not a crime. But once you lie for money it is fraud which is a crime. So why isn’t scientific fraud a violation of the criminal laws on fraud? Fraud is usually defined as some form of deceit that provides personal gain usually of a financial form. Selling something that was misrepresented is fraud. Leaving aside grants our salaries derive from scientific productivity, so all the ingredients are there.

      • One problem with scientific fraud is the question: “Who is the victim?” Science itself cannot sue. Probably funding agency, university or, the state could do it. But for an individual, it might be difficult to show that small fraud actually causes harm.

        I really do not like the murder comparison if one can easily use e.g. credit card fraud. I know it is an analogy, but still. Is then running the wrong model or similar and publish it, involuntary manslaughter? Because you did not do it on purpose.

      • Just to amplify the distinctions between research misconduct and a crime: crimes are defined by ‘elements‘ in the criminal code. Two of the four required elements for fraud would always be difficult to prosecute in science: i.e., that someone believed a false statement (scientists are skeptics), and as a result were injured as a result of acting on that belief. But a few have been prosecuted when the required elements are meant. One went to jail for suborning perjury in his trial, another was imprisoned after involvement by a prominent US senator (imho).

    • “I am, however, pretty distressed at the apparently minimal repercussions (that I’m aware of) for the less-than-serial cases of fraud. ”

      Me too. This little dataset I compiled indicates that the very worst serial fraudsters almost never get away without fairly serious penalties. But my anecdotal impression is that people who fake a couple of papers or grant applications before getting caught often just get a slap on the wrist. Which as you point out, is a bit like giving someone who only murders one person a slap on the wrist. (Note that maybe my anecdotal impression is wrong! I haven’t compiled the data.)

  3. We had a fascinating case in Spain some years ago: the researcher did not only altered lab results, but he even invented some authors (¡), institutions and lists of papers (in websites) that never existed.

  4. Of 3 serious fraud cases I know fairly well, the perpetrator moved on to new endeavors as if nothing happened. E.g. moved from academia to non-profit environmental organizations. When I read the title of this thread, I thought the focus would be on what happened after their penalty. What happened after being fired? From the cases I know, the person just moves on with very little if any consequences. E.g. its no different than just making a career change for any other reason. A student in our department fabricated their thesis data: they did not get their degree, and moved on to be a school teacher. None of the information of the fabrication was reported in a way that would hinder them. If you are lucky, the name of the fabricator is a give away, as in Crook v. Peacor, 579 F. Supp. 853! https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/FSupp/579/853/1818881/

    • I think some of this gets back to the discussion above about legally-enforceable professional licensing requirements. If you want to be able to ban someone from working in a certain profession, there needs to be some sort of legally-binding licensing requirement, and some sort of professional body with the power to rescind licenses. Would we scientists want that?

      And if you want scientific misconduct to be a permanent black mark that follows the fraudster forever, well, then I think that means that it has to be criminalized.

    • Well, he seems to have resorted to that after being fired from, or leaving, several actually-existing employers.

      He’s certainly a textbook example of someone moving around, pulling the same frauds over and over again. One can point to examples of criminal fraudsters who do the same.

  5. There is another consequence, perhaps rare but real none-the-less, for those who think they can skip out of research into business to escape the consequences. Notably, companies that do business with the Federal government often sign what is called a Corporate Integrity Agreement (CIA). The CIA basically says ‘we don’t use anyone (in that Fed-related project) who has had a federal action against them.’ ORI was asked In an appeal once to reduce the length of its debarment so the Respondent could move to a more profitable position doing on the company’s federal work. ORI did not grant his appeal to shorten its sanction.

  6. We should definitely come down hard on fraudsters, for the fraud they commit. I commend the justice systems that took criminal action, the unis that fired these professors, etc. and the taking back of licenses.

    I don’t know the details of the Schön case, but I don’t necessarily think it’s good that the uni took back his PhD, if his PhD research was non-fraudulent. A PhD isn’t a license in my opinion, it is a degree granted based on a body of work completed during the program. Surely there are many people with PhDs who go on to do terrible things, but if we take away PhDs for those things I think this may not be great president. If it were a license, I would agree with you. But, anyone can submit to a journal without a PhD, so it isn’t like losing a medical license.

    If the reason you like this punishment is unrelated to a PhD being like a license, then what is the reason you favour this punishment? Do you think his undergrad should take back his bachelors degree? should his highschool take back his high school diploma? If the rationale for the punishment is that the PhD shames the institution that granted the PhD, then all of the above institutions could make the same argument.

    These fraudsters make me very angry, and I’d like to throw the book at them, but not sure taking away the PhD is the best way to punish.

    • Thanks for your comments, they forced me to stop and think. When I first read that Schon’s PhD was rescinded, my immediate reaction–recorded in the post–was “good for his uni!” Why did I react that way, and was it justified? Or was that reaction just me going “Schon was Bad, so any punishment he gets is Good”.

      One caveat to everything I’m about to say: I’m completely ignorant of German law. Possibly, Schon lost his PhD for reasons that are specific to Germany. So rather than thinking about Schon specifically, I’m trying to think about the broader reasons that might justify any serial scientific fraudster losing a PhD, even if the PhD research itself was not thought to be fraudulent.

      On reflection, I agree with you that people shouldn’t have their PhDs rescinded for doing just any bad thing. Like, if you hold a PhD, and commit a bunch of burglaries or something, I don’t think your PhD should be rescinded. And I agree with you that serial scientific fraudsters shouldn’t have their undergraduate degrees or high school diplomas rescinded.

      But unlike an undergraduate degree or a high school diploma, a PhD certifies you as a researcher or scholar. You’ve joined the community of researchers and scholars by completing a PhD. (note: getting a PhD is not the *only* way to join that community. But it’s *a* way.) And so if your subsequent behavior *as a researcher or scholar* repeatedly violates the scholarly community’s most central norms and basic standards, then yeah, I think I’m ok with the community kicking you out. Now, is any of this written down in the official formal requirements of any PhD program? No, I don’t think so. But not every rule of every human institution is (or should be, or could be) written down. Extraordinary cases like Schon’s illustrate the limits of written policies and rules for punishing bad behavior.

      To which, one could reply that there are, or should be, other ways (formal and informal) of kicking someone out of the community of scholars besides rescinding a PhD. Publication bans, funding bans, etc. That’s a totally defensible reply.

      • “Schön sued the university, and last year a court ruled in his favor. The university appealed, however, and last week the Administrative Court of Baden-Württemberg in Mannheim ruled that the university was within its rights to rescind the degree. The awarding of a doctorate is a confirmation of the recipient’s ability to conduct independent scientific research, Judge Reinhard Schwan said in his oral explanation of the verdict last week. A Ph.D. brings with it the public perception of being a member of the scientific community and a presumed high level of trustworthiness, the judge said. When a recipient has violated basic principles of good scientific practice, the title is no longer applicable and should be corrected, he said.” Source: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2011/09/jan-hendrik-sch-n-loses-his-phd

        I think this opens up an interesting debate on what a PhD actually means. If it is simply a certificate for completing course requirements and writing a thesis, then it is wrong to rescind a degree. However, if a PhD signifies that the recipient is capable of trustworthy, ethical and independent research, then subsequent fraud would suggest that, in hindsight, the candidate didn’t really meet those criteria.

        In an aside, I think Germany takes the PhD particularly seriously. I have dual-German citizenship and was not allowed to use the title ‘Dr’ on my passport application without first providing evidence that (a) I completed a PhD and (b) it was of an equivalent standard to a PhD from a German University. I didn’t bother going through all the admin, so I’m curious to hear from folks in Germany whether the title of Dr brings any advantages to justify the hassle?

      • I think that’s fair. I’m probably more in the camp of the final paragraph, but I get your rationale now. My concern is with the precedence it might create. Allowing universities to take back Ph.D.’s for things not done during the Ph.D. gives them a lot of power that could be abused. With no independent governing body making sure taking back the Ph.D. is reasonable, the punishment makes me feel uncomfortable. Maybe such a body exists in Germany, or maybe the courts serve that purpose.

  7. jk wrote: “One problem with scientific fraud is the question: “Who is the victim?” Science itself cannot sue.”

    The victims are:
    (1): the honest scientists who did not get the grant.
    (2): the honest scientists who did not get tenure.
    (3): the honest scientists who needed to put (much) more effort to get published their work.

    • Yeah, easy enough to say, but try proving that in an adversarial legal setting, and would any of those you cite have unequivocal and indisputable legal status in any specific case? How about falsification in an unfunded PHS grant. That is also research misconduct, but where is your ‘victim’ there?

      I admit my orientation stems from 20 years at the US ORI, where one place to start Is definition of fraud in a blacks legal dictionary. That definition certainly could be different internationally. But even given those constraints, try understanding the rest of my comments, in which I pointed out there actually have been US cases that have been prosecuted as criminal fraud. But does the fact that those occasions are quite rare tell us anything?

      In one of the cases I mentioned, the government was able to argue that there were indeed victims who who had been harmed by the falsifications about basis for treatments, but in that case the respondent got two scientists to lie to the court for him. When sentencing hearing came up, the judge simply asked the respondent whether he had ever lied to the court before? The respondent got sentenced to one year and a day. In the other case, it is unclear if the respondent would have received the sentence he did without the involvement of a powerful US senator. So do you really imagine the academic community would ever support criminalization of what we now call research misconduct?

  8. Deleted a comment consisting entirely of a trollish, presumably politically-motivated insult of a prominent scientist.

    Go find someplace else to insult people whose politics you disagree with, or inject partisan talking points into conversations having nothing to do with politics.

  9. Coda: Out of curiosity I did a lot search on Adrian Maxim. His prolific publishing record appears to have stopped in 2008 when he was publicly outed as a fraud. Curious, he seems to have also been a prolific patent filer, perhaps with similar quality ‘data’?

    Some scientists pull lots of shit and get away with it, but exposed fraud seems to be a career death knell. Of course clever scammers seem to land on their feet, using their skills to relaunch. In my circle, I know of a former attorney who ‘voluntarily’ surrender their license in lieu of disciplinary proceedings and then landed a job as a claims reviewer for a health insurance company.

    • Your googling of Adrian Maxim was better than mine!

      Re: white collar fraudsters “landing on their feet” by getting other white collar jobs, I vaguely recall hearing that poli sci fraudster Michael LaCour got a job in the advertising industry after Princeton unhired him. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, as a scientist I feel very angry at the worst serial fraudsters. It doesn’t feel like justice to me if they can just leave science (whether through being fired, or quitting, or retiring) and go get another white collar job that probably pays about as well. On the other hand, from a public policy perspective I think it would be terrible policy to ban everyone who commits scientific fraud (or other fraud) from ever working again at any job whatsoever! Now, I don’t think someone who’s been fired for scientific fraud is entitled to be trusted or forgiven by other scientists, merely because they’ve been fired. But as we discussed earlier in this thread, many forms of scientific misconduct don’t break any criminal or civil law. So as upset as I (and many other scientists) get with serial scientific fraudsters, I don’t think we’re entitled to expect that those serial scientific fraudsters should receive any punishments much worse than losing their jobs.

  10. Good ‘ol Schoogle! Google Scholar returns patents, at least for the US, and this inventor filed a passel of them.
    I agree, being forced out of a professional field and its community in disgrace is a proportionate penalty for science fraudsters. And I’d guess the former attorney now working as an insurance claims reviewer is making a quarter to a third that of prior earnings. But I still think of them when I get some inane bounce on an medical bill.
    I have to admit a grudging admiration for top-notch serial fraudsters, whether the art forger producing newly discovered works in the style of an old master; the purveyor of new, ancient religious texts for sale, good counterfeiters, archeoraptor, anglerfish, deceptive plants, and tribute bands. The ingenuity and skill of some fraudsters is stunning. What they could have done if they’d gone straight. I’m not there with researchers of illusionary lionfish and overly social spiders. Those are just tangled webs.

    • “I have to admit a grudging admiration for top-notch serial fraudsters”

      Thereby raising the interesting question, what’s the most impressive scientific fraud of all time? The one that draws the most admiration (however grudging) for the skill, ingenuity, and effort involved?

      I guess Piltdown Man might be a candidate? I tried to quickly google for other candidates, but the results for searches on “greatest scientific fraud of all time” are dominated by political operatives and conspiracy theorists claiming that global temperature records have been faked.

      • Now a post on that might produce interesting reading in the comments. You might have to to wield your moderator’s power freely. Piltdown Man seems the dastardly one to beat, with planting the bones for others to find, the duration of the deception, and wide acceptance for a while. Perpetual motion machines and mechanical Turks would be contenders. Spectacular mistakes such as cold fusion that apparently intended no deception need not apply.

  11. Pingback: Friday links: life after scientific misconduct, Comedy Wildlife Photography awards, and more | Dynamic Ecology

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.