Criminal Prosecution for Scientific Fraud

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I spoke to a reporter at the end of last week about the criminal prosecution of scientific fraud. I’m not sure how coherent my end of the conversation was at the time, but I thought the topic was interesting enough to return to it briefly here.

Let’s put aside potential investigations and prosecutions by the federal Office of Research Integrity (part of DHHS). Granted, the ORI has claimed an extraordinarily broad mandate (funded and unfunded applications!), which might be worth returning to one day. But on the whole, such cases seem to me to be a fairly mundane application of the general contract fraud principles.

Instead, I’ll concentrate on a free-floating action in fraud against a scientific investigator for having misled potential patients. Thus, consider the scenario of a doctor faking an experiment to show that Drug X prevents heart attacks and has no side effects, when, in fact, it has no preventative powers, and it causes immediate hair loss. Is that doctor criminally liable? Civilly?

I’d guess that to the extent that general fraud often requires an intent-to-induce element, most scientists would be able to successfully assert that they did not intend for patients to rely on their work. In the civil context, I also assume that a consumer’s action would fail on the “justifiable reliance” end. If this weren’t true, I imagine that most scientific papers would end with a disclaimer that they are not intended to be relied upon, and that patients ought to consult their physicians (etc.)

But let’s put aside the doctrine for a moment and consider the policy arguments for attacking scientific fraud with prosecution. There are at least two reasons to think this is a bad idea (again, apart from the government-contract fraud case).


First, I worry about chilling the wide co-authorship norm that is widespread in scientific literature. Hwang Woo Suk’s now-discredited cloning article in science had 24 co-authors, including this apparently innocent scientist at Pitt. While not each and every author faces the same legal risk, the possibility that a co-author’s wrongdoing will result in a scientist facing hard time would inevitably raise the costs for collaboration across universities and borders. These costs are particularly unnecessary in the scientific field, where private enforcement is likely to be effective. Not only is the gold-standard in scientific methodology replicability – meaning that much work will be double-checked – but the reputation costs for falsifying data are severe.

Second, I wonder about proof. Few cases are going to be as spectacular as the Korean cloning fiasco, which has resulted in a nationwide self-examination . Most cases are going to be considerably closer, and the untangling of scientific fraud, like the untangling of corporate fraud, may entail unusually complex demands on jury decision making. I’m a big defender of the jury system, but that defense doesn’t require me to be blind the possibility that juries will allow scientific-fraud cases to turn into morality plays. Top scientists, like top executives, are likely to be arrogant and abrasive, and run the risk of pro-prosecution jury nullification.

Thus, at least on first glance, I’m not convinced that expanding civil or criminal liability for alleged fraud in scientific publications is a good idea. But I’m willing to be convinced that I’m wrong…

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4 Responses

  1. Dave says:

    Those who control the power structure count on arguements like this to maintain their power. To paraphrase what Churchill had once said, “all it takes is for evil to win is for good scientists to sit idlely by”.

    The fact that scientific fraud and misconduct is “complex” is no argument for not pursuing resolution via the court systems. Some murders can be quite complex in nature, but that doesn’t mean we simply fail to prosecute them.

    As more and more instances of scientific fraud come to light, and more and more lawyers get trained in the various “modus operandi”, our expertise in prosecuting these cases will expand.

  2. Gerhard Falk says:

    Although scientific fraud is offensive and destructive, the penalty is the stigma which the scientific community imposes on fraudulent scientists. We certainly cannot trust prosecutors who are far more malicious and fraudulent than any scientists. Prosecutors, seeking to be re-elected constantly imprison innocent people and even send the innocent to their deaths. The time has come to rid outselves of prosecutors who evidently care only about their power and their money and don’t give a damn about justice.

  3. Yes charge scientists and university administrators who commit fraud with felony and send them to jail. There is a definite difference between an honest mistake and a deliberate premediatated fraud. And researchers who commit fraud are not children with their hands in the cookie jar,they are mean spirited adults who are out for private gain even if it means depriving people of cures and treatments. Delay in research can mean death .All for money and prestige. See my website, http://www.cancerfraudbadbiotech.com and see that cancer research was blocked to cover up academic scholarship fraud at Yale for U of Waterloo (RIM, the Blackberry). I know, I survived cancer because of those suppressed theories. In this modern world, research is critical, and fraud can not only lose money but lives, and given the fraud may be a vaccine, we are talking thousands of lives. Not cookies in a cookie jar. So if a scientist is imporatant enough to receive federal money , he/she is important enough to tell the truth, good or bad. And if they lie, the research is so important that they face serious consequences. If not, don’t apply for serious funding. Get it? So to help undo the corruption and ensure society is safe, help expose corruption and hold those accountable for their deliberate premediatated acts of selfishness and meaness. Thank you. E.A.Greenhalgh

  4. victim says:

    UCLA ‘s Dr. Matthew Lieberman and Dr. Naomi Eisenberger (whom is his wife) are guilty of horrible unethical research misconduct! They conduct environmentally manipulated unethical research experiments on unconsenting and unknowledgable individuals (in real time) while these individuals are living out their daily lives!

    They deliberately manipulate a person’s (real-time) social environment in such an extremely negative, unpleasant and intolerable way ,so that it causes that individual to be faced with problems that will cause them to suffer from long term social and emotional distress!

    They purposely manipulate an individuals daily social environment in a negative way, so that they will begin to suffer extreme amounts of emotional and visceral pain on a daily basis …all, due to the problems that dr. Matthew Lieberman and dr. Naomi Eisenberger’s group has deliberately caused for them!

    Their victims begins to suffer long episodes of rejection, isolation, ostracism, loss, abandonment and cannot find any social support. They are not told why or who has done this to them! Their lives are deliberately destroyed !They begin to suffer extreme amounts of pain all …so , Dr. Matthew Lieberman and his wife, UCLA’s Dr. Naomi Eisenberger can get a more original view of individuals suffering from social distress! The focus of their research experiments!

    Dr. Matthew Lieberman and Dr. Naomi Eisenberger ‘ s research projects need to be investigated ,
    shut down and held accountable for the lives and health of the individuals that they have tortured and destroyed all for their own financial greed, job security and to manipulate a way to get their research published in journals!