SAN DIEGO — A team of professors at the University of California, San Diego, who investigated the university's worst case of research fraud has concluded that the traditional checks and balances against scientific dishonesty are no longer sufficient to do the job.
In an article published today in the New England Journal of Medicine, five of the faculty members who studied the case of Dr. Robert Slutsky recommended that professional journals, granting agencies and research institutions more closely scrutinize researchers and their work.
"We conclude that peer review and replication will not always detect fraud, and that trust in a researcher's motivation ignores the ever-present dangers of conflict between personal and intellectual motives," they stated.
Resigns From School
Slutsky was a 36-year-old specialist in cardiac radiology in 1985 when he resigned from the UC San Diego School of Medicine amid suspicions of research fraud.
A university committee later concluded that Slutsky had committed extensive research fraud, charging that he had fudged statistics, recycled data and inflated numbers of experimental animals.
The case is believed to have been one of the most extensive cases of academic fraud in recent history. It derailed Slutsky's career, indirectly damaged the careers of some colleagues and embarrassed a major research institution.
In the New England Journal article, the authors concluded that the peer review system under which scientists review one another's work before publication failed to detect implausible claims as well as discrepancies in some of Slutsky's papers.
The professors also cast doubt on the traditional system of replication under which scientists attempt independently to verify or refute other scientists' findings. The group concluded that it has become increasingly difficult to obtain money for such work.
Furthermore, replication detects only incorrect results, not correct results based on fraudulent data, the professors noted. In Slutsky's case, the committee found that he had written papers reaching correct conclusions but using fabricated data, apparently to pad his bibliography.
The professors suggested that the peer review system may be overloaded and that "problems with the number of manuscripts" need to be addressed. They also suggested that so-called referees for journals may need improved training.
They recommended that institutions advise all researchers of specific policies and procedures for reporting unethical practices, and inform new faculty and trainees of "realistic performance expectations" in order to discourage "excessive productivity."
No Direct Response
Slutsky, now in training as an anesthesiologist in New York state, never directly responded to the faculty committee's final report.
The journal article does not exempt UC San Diego from blame.
The group of professors found that some of Slutsky's superiors had failed to adequately supervise his work and to recognize his "excessive productivity." In addition, the professors concluded that colleagues had neglected to report suspicions about him.
They accused some of his 93 co-authors of "culpable . . . carelessness" in being named on papers they had never scrutinized. Others, they suggested, engaged in "deliberate misrepresentation" in accepting "gift co-authorship" without doing any work.