Fraud in scientific institutes: a crack in the fabric of science

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The pursuit of scientific knowledge is at the heart of human progress – it leads to ground-breaking discoveries that have transformed our understanding of the world and our place within it. However, this noble pursuit is not without its blemishes. Scientific fraud – the deliberate misrepresentation of data or results to deceive the scientific community – poses a serious threat to the integrity of the scientific enterprise in both academia and industry. So, what can we do about it?

Troubling examples of worldwide fraud

Recent revelations of widespread fraud at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute have sent shockwaves through the scientific community. The prestigious Boston institute will retract six studies and correct 31 more as part of an ongoing investigation into claims of data manipulation. That these issues have come to light at such a highly respected research institution has raised concerns about the pervasiveness of the problem of scientific fraud.

The Dana-Farber controversy arose after allegations were made by the British molecular biologist Sholto David. In January 2024, he published a blog post suggesting researchers involved in several specific studies had committed scientific fraud, including data fabrication, image manipulation, and falsification of results. Unfortunately, the Dana-Farber institute is not an isolated case. In early February 2024, microbiologist and science integrity consultant Elisabeth Bik published the results of her latest investigation into alleged scientific misconduct. Her report outlined 59 instances of alleged image duplication or reuse in papers published by Khalid Shah, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School and its teaching hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

These two incidents are just a few recent high-profile examples illustrating an underlying problem in academia. Over the past decade, the number of research misconduct allegations reported to the National Institutes of Health (NIH – the primary US agency for biomedical and public health research) has more than doubled, climbing from 74 in 2013 to 169 in 2022. In China, the government has launched a nationwide self-review of university publications after it became known that Hindawi (a London-based subsidiary of the publisher Wiley) retracted a significant number of articles, including 9,600 in 2023 of which the vast majority (about 8,200) had at least one co-author in China. It is clear that we are currently seeing the tip of the iceberg of a deep-rooted issue in global academic publishing, made worse by the “publish or perish” culture that is rife within academic careers.

Erosion of trust

One concerning consequence of research fraud is the erosion of public trust in science. When researchers are found to have fabricated data or manipulated experiments, it undermines the credibility of the entire scientific community. This can lead to skepticism about the validity of scientific findings, making it more difficult to disseminate important scientific information to the public. It also contributes to the spread conspiracy theories, such as the viral misinformation spread during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When researchers are found to have fabricated data or manipulated experiments, it undermines the credibility of the entire scientific community.” – Katja Rosenkranz

The ramifications of scientific fraud also extend beyond the public perception of tarnished researcher reputations. For biotech companies, the consequences can be particularly severe, as they rely on scientific research to develop new drugs and therapies. When fraud is discovered in research conducted at a company’s partner institution, it can cast doubt on the validity of the entire research portfolio, jeopardizing ongoing clinical trials and delaying, or even halting, drug development. This can lead to significant financial losses for the company and negatively impact its prospects of future funding.

Moreover, fraud can raise concerns about the company’s commitment to ethical practices and may damage its relationships with regulators and the public. The fallout from scientific fraud can be long-lasting, affecting a company’s reputation and ability to operate effectively in the highly-regulated biotech industry. At a time when conspiracy theories are rife – including examples like “covid vaccines spread the disease” or “vaccines are an attempt by governments to restrict free speech” – the erosion of trust in the integrity of the biotech and pharma industry can be highly damaging to both companies and public health.

Protecting scientific integrity

Addressing the issue of scientific fraud requires a multifaceted approach involving researchers, institutions, and funding agencies. Venture Capitalist funds also play a vital part, as they finance start-ups which are often developing new therapies or inventions originating in the academic labs of scientific institutions.

As VCs, we often ask for data to be reproduced by external service providers, either before we invest or as a first step after an investment. This is done not only to screen for potential fraud, but also because many academic experiments can’t be reproduced in other labs, which can occur due to many reasons other than fraud. The aim for both is to ensure that the scientific basis of the company is sound.

To combat scientific fraud and its severe negative consequences, all stakeholders in the scientific community must foster a culture of openness and accountability, where researchers are encouraged to report concerns about misconduct without fear of reprisal. This requires a supportive environment where transparency and collaboration are valued. At V-Bio Ventures we call on all VCs to do their part in ensuring that their portfolio companies are based on a solid foundation, and that the highest standards of scientific integrity are upheld.

“To combat scientific fraud and its severe negative consequences, all stakeholders in the scientific community must foster a culture of openness and accountability.” – Katja Rosenkranz