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
twoone 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!