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Resveratrol researcher faked data, report says; what drives academic fraud?

January 12, 2012|By Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times / For the Booster Shots blog
  • Dipak Das in 2006 with grapes and wine glasses at his office at the UConn Health Center in Farmington, Conn. The researcher is known for his work on red wine's benefits to cardiovascular health. University of Connecticut officials said an internal review found 145 instances over seven years in which Das fabricated, falsified and manipulated data.
Dipak Das in 2006 with grapes and wine glasses at his office at the UConn Health… (University of Connecticut…)

A University of Connecticut researcher who worked on the health benefits of a chemical in red wine fabricated data in 145 separate research projects, a three-year investigation has found.

University officials have notified 11 scientific journal studies co-authored by Dipak Das, whose work focused on whether resveratrol -- an antioxidant found in grape skin -- can prevent coronary heart disease or kill cancer cells, according to the Boston Herald.

Resveratrol has been linked to these benefits in a number of studies -- just recently, Times health writer Melissa Healy explained a study that showed obese men who took resveratrol in high doses saw their metabolic function improve and evidence of inflammation fall -- almost as if they were becoming more "athletic" without raising a single dumbbell.

But Healy has also written about the hype around resveratrol. "The marketing frenzy surrounding resveratrol is a prime example of how science can be distorted when it is mingled with hope, amplified for buzz and spun for profit," she wrote in a 2009 piece that took a critical look at the relative lack of solid science surrounding the antioxidant.

Those same pressures to market successful results also seem to appear during the process of the actual research.

"If you are blatantly honest about your failures, you will get nowhere," David Rowe, director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine and Skeletal Development at the university's health center, told the Boston Herald. "The fact is that reviewing agencies want success. Therefore you spin your data in the most favorable way. That’s where the dangers begin to come - that you spin it a little more than you can justify and then one thing leads to another. It’s a very mushy, very fuzzy line."

In fact, as I wrote in a story on Dutch social psychologist Diederik Stapel, who was found to have falsified dozens of papers over several years, questionable research practices may be more commonplace than thought.

In a study to be published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers surveyed more than 2,000 psychologists and found that many said they had engaged in potentially unsavory practices, including selectively reporting studies that 'worked' (50%) and yes, even outright falsification of data (1.7%).

The problem with these practices, study coauthor and Carnegie Mellon professor George Loewenstein said, was that many such practices fall into a defensible gray area, which allows researchers to justify their actions.

As general a problem as it may be in academia, the details of the case actually start to sound a lot like the case of Stapel himself. Like Das, he was also in a position of authority while he faked at least some of the data. A report detailing the deceptions detailed how Stapel would compartmentalize work in an effort to keep his research partners in the dark.

Unlike Stapel's case, however, there appear to be several researchers who were aware, and even complicit, in the faking of data in Das' studies.  

Follow me on Twitter @LAT_aminakhan.

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