Dishonesty in Medical Research

Recent research suggests that a quarter of all the papers published in medical journals are either ‘plagiarised’ or simply ‘made up’.

Some observers seem surprised by this.

They shouldn’t be.

The paragraphs which follow were taken from my book The Health Scandal which caused quite a storm when it was published in 1988. The Sunday Times said `This book detects diseases in the whole way we deliver health care’. Nursing Times described it as ‘central to the health of the nation’ and the British Medical Journal said it was ‘a book to stimulate and to make one argue’. Nothing has changed. The Health Scandal has recently been republished and is now available via the bookshop on this website).

‘With enormous pressures on them to make discoveries and produce startling results a growing number of researchers are 'cooking the books' and 'fiddling the figures'.

In my book Paper Doctors, published in 1976, I described two examples of doctors who had been found out. The first was Dr William Summerlin, who was hired by the Sloan Ketting Institute in New York at a salary of$40,000 a year to do work on the problems of transplanting skin and overcoming rejection problems. Summerlin seemed to have made a major breakthrough in this area but no other laboratory anywhere in the world was able to duplicate his excellent results. Then, under pressure, Summerlin admitted that he had cheated. He was supposed to have transplanted skin from black mice to white mice. In fact he had simply inked in the transplant sites with a black felt-tipped pen.

The second medical trickster was Dr J. P. Sedgwick, a GP working in London's West End. Dr Sedgwick was offered £10 per card to fill in a number of trial cards showing the effects of a new hypotensive drug on the blood pressure of some of his patients. Dr Sedgwick filled in 100 cards and accepted £1,000 from the company concerned, Bayer. (See also page 34.)

Bayer became concerned when the cards were returned for not only were they still clean and unmarked but the blood-pressure figures (which all seemed to have been filled in at the same time) were identical on several sets of cards. The drug company eventually reported the doctor to the General Medical Council and inJ uly 1975 Dr Sedgwick had the dubious distinction of being the first medical practitioner to be struck off for such unprofessional behaviour.

Since those early days of deceit, dishonesty among researchers has become sadly and regrettably all too commonplace and the journalsare these days constantly reporting more and more instances of over-zealous researchers falsifying or inventing results.

In 1980, for example, the world of medicine was devastated by a series of scandals involving such prestigious centres of excellence as Yale School of Medicine, Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard. At the Boston University Medical Center a three-year $1 million cancer research project was tainted by false data. At Cornell University Mark Spector seemed on the brink of winning a Nobel Prize for his work explaining how tumour-causing viruses could turn a cell cancerous. Then suddenly his spectacular career was in ruins. Findings that were originally described as fundamental breakthroughs were branded as fraudulent. Colleagues discovered that Spector had cunningly doctored isolated bits of cellular matter to look like things they were not.

In 1983 there was an even bigger scandal in America when Dr John Darsee who had worked as a researcher at Harvard was accused of falsifying data. Darsee had done research work on a project funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute designed to help assess the effectiveness of drugs to treat heart attacks. After the research project was discredited Harvard was asked to return the $122,371 it had received as funding.

In the autumn ofl986 Professor Michael Briggs, who had worked at an Australian University, admitted 'serious deceptions' in his research into changes in the fats in blood caused by oral contracep­ tives. Briggs published papers dealing with contraceptive pill side effects between 1976 and 1984 and claimed that his research work had been done at Deakin University. Two drug companies who had provided Briggs with financial backing were shocked when details of his fraudulent behaviour were revealed. Professor Briggs had, after all, been an expert adviser to the World Health Organization.

Then in November 1986 yet another fraudulent medical author was exposed. Robert Slutsky of the University of California at San Diego withdraw fifteen published papers. His action immediately put fifty-five other papers under a cloud. Towards the end of his stay at the University Slutsky had been producing new scientific papers at the rate of one every ten days.

Inevitably all this fraudulent research work leads to problems for other researchers. Once a fraudulent paper gets into the system it can be quoted hundreds of times by other researchers within months of its first publication. The Index Medicus, the most important listing of research papers, does not correct false information or list fraudu­lent authors or fraudulent papers. There is, therefore, no way for an author to check on the validity of the papers he wants to use in his own research work. In October 1986 a quick survey of papers that were known to be fraudulent revealed a total of forty-three papers published in the last five years or so. If each one of those papers was quoted by only ten other authors, then that makes 430 papers of questionable quality hiding in the world's medical literature.

Medical research is not only costly and of questionable value.

Much of it, it seems, is downright misleading.

As a final footnote to this section it is also perhaps worth pointing out that in a recent analysis of research work published in his book The Clay Pedestal (published in the United States by Nadonna Publications) T. Preston pointed out that one survey of research work showed that almost seventy-five per cent of all the reports published contained invalid conclusions that had been based on the incorrect use of statistics.’

Taken from The Health Scandal by Vernon Coleman, first published in 1988 and now available again on Amazon.