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Infectious Diseases

The End Result of Faked Results

Oh, man. Here’s another example of an old, sad story – just a little fakery at the beginning, and here’s what it leads to:

Government prosecutors said (Dong-Pyou) Han’s misconduct dates to 2008 when he worked at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland under professor Michael Cho, who was leading a team testing an experimental HIV vaccine on rabbits. Cho’s team began receiving NIH funding, and he soon reported the vaccine was causing rabbits to develop antibodies to HIV, which was considered a major breakthrough. Han said he initially accidentally mixed human blood with rabbit blood making the potential vaccine appear to increase an immune defense against HIV, the virus that can cause AIDS. Han continued to spike the results to avoid disappointing Cho, his mentor, after the scientific community became excited that the team could be on the verge of a vaccine.

He’s now been sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison for faking research reports, and to repay the NIH $7.2 million in misused grant money. This was an extensive program of faked results (see this post at Retraction Watch from 2013, when the Office of Research Integrity made its report on the case). This went on for years, with the results – presented at multiple conferences in the field – being the basis for an entire large research program.

How someone ends up in this position, that’s what you wonder. But it’s a classic mistake. Fred Schwed, in Where Are the Customer’s Yachts?, laid out the equivalent situation in investing. I don’t have the exact quote to hand, but it was something like “They got on the train at Grand Central Station – they were just going uptown to visit Grandma. But the next thing they knew, they were making 80 miles an hour, at midnight, through Terre Haute, Indiana”. In a more somber key, Macbeth experiences the same feeling in Act 3, scene 4: “I am in blood. Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.” It’s such an old trap that you’d think that people would be looking out for it more alertly, but I supposed that the people who fall into it never think that it’ll happen to them. . .

29 comments on “The End Result of Faked Results”

  1. oldnuke says:

    Where is the $7.2 million coming from? Or is this just gratuitous piling-on by the DOJ to make Senator Grasseley hush up?

  2. Biotech Capitalist says:

    I hope to see more criminal prosecution of faked federally funded research which is fraud. Absolutely no group of humans has ever policed their own. Scientists, as a human group, too cannot be trusted to police their own. That is what checks and balances are for.
    Also, it is a good thing that Senator Grassley has been examining universities and research for years.

  3. lazybratsche says:

    A quick and dirty search on NIH Reporter for grant funding awarded to Michael Cho at CWRU finds $3.9 million related to HIV between 2003 and 2009. The rest of the money may be indirect costs (given to the university hosting Cho’s lab to cover overhead) or grants I didn’t find. Averaging $550k/year, this is not an unusual amount of funding for a biomedical research lab.
    For the (few) readers here who are unfamiliar with research costs, that kind of money pays for perhaps a half dozen technicians, grad students, and postdocs, a year’s supply of expensive consumable reagents, and the occasional purchase of expensive equipment. Nobody is buying Porsches and yachts with that money.

  4. oldnuke says:

    @3: Which is precisely my point — the institution gets the money, not the PI. Seems to me that the institution should be on the hook to disgorge the money. If the institution wants to go after the PI, that would be a civil matter.

  5. Sam Adams The Dog says:

    @2 Umm… didn’t this come out of the Office of Research Integrity? Isn’t that the scientific establishment policing their own?
    And then there was Joe Kennedy and the SEC. There’s something to be said for the idea that “it takes one to know one.”

  6. luysii says:

    It’s not confined to biomedicine — seeön_scandal

  7. Anonymous says:

    Wow, a 51-year old research associate. I don’t feel so old now.
    Anyway, on to the bigger point:
    “Cho’s team continues to work on the vaccine at ISU and has subsequently obtained funding.”
    Technician/grad student/postdoc blamed, PI carries on with no repercussions, also new funding. Where have I heard that before?
    Oh yeah, everywhere.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Good. They should publish YouTube videos of Cho getting buggered in prison to discourage scientific fraud. I have no sympathy, because there is no excuse. None.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Or Han

  10. Hap says:

    I don’t really mind cheaters being hung out to dry; it’s just that the penalties and enforcement seem uneven at best. In general, PIs are unlikely to bear any of the consequences of fraud in their group, though they likely received the lion’s share of benefits from it. This implies that there is very little incentive for a PI to check the veracity of his group’s results – as long as he doesn’t participate directly in the fraud, he can claim that he knew nothing and escape sanction, and if the results are real or are fake and aren’t detected as such, he can reap the largest portion of the rewards. This would seem to be contrary to the point of being a professor – you are there to do science and to teach people how to do it, and if it’s in your best interest not to teach people how to do science or to do it badly and dishonestly, then nothing good is going to come from the system.
    I wonder if anyone got cashiered for finding this fraud.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Sorry to change subjects, any thoughts on this call from DARPA?

  12. Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous (#13): My thoughts? That Marty Burke continues to succeed beyond my wildest dreams by hitting that one note over and over again.
    Now I know why my parents complain about that loud rock music.

  13. another anon says:

    @ Hap (#10). Totally agree with you on that one. That PI was traveling around, getting awards, salary raises and a bunch of other benefits because of “his research”, and then shabang – all of the sudden he doesn’t know anything, he was not aware of the misconduct, he is really concerned, but it’s NOT his fault. And the sad part, none of the other PIs really give a damn. He is getting funded, because the panel of other PIs okays his new proposal without any regard to his ability to manage research in his lab.

  14. AcademicLurker says:

    @3. And that 4 million could have gone to fund honest researchers. The $$ adds up to about 3 RO1s. That’s 3 folks who likely missed getting tenure or had to close down their programs while Han & co. were raking it in.

  15. Poison Ivy League says:

    The broken record of no PI accountability continues to spin…

  16. MoMo says:

    Lets all watch what happens to their US patent application-
    Polypeptides comprising epitopes of hiv gp41 and methods of use US 20110064760 A1.
    Given Case Western and the inventors had intended to gain at the expense of the American taxpayer, the noose should have included the horse (PI and CW Tech transfer office) and not only the villain.

  17. Anonymous says:

    How did Han benefit from the $7M? A nontenure track stipend? Support for a green card?
    Maybe we should pair this with the the discussion about H1-B’s a few days ago, and how workers can be forced to do things to advance the company/PI. If I were Han, I might’ve concocted a fairly believable tale of being forced to fake data to keep the grants rolling in. What would he have to lose?
    This also goes well with the discussion a few months ago of how PIs shouldn’tA href=””>be required to refund fraudulently obtained funding, since no-one’s going to report it if they do. As can be seen here, all glory to PI, workers reaping no tangible benefits will still take the fall. They can always ship in a few more postdocs next year.

  18. Brad says:

    It reminds me of the Vietnam War and “knee deep in the Old Muddy.”

  19. Anonymous says:

    Or maybe its all a coincidence that most (all?) of the cases we hear about get laid at the feet of some funny-named foreigner.
    Cui bono indeed.

  20. Anonymous says:

    I do not want to justify Han’s misconduct, and I don’t mean that this is what happened here, but grad students are sometimes under enormous pressure from their supervisors to get results. These kids (they’re kids, don’t forget that) are scared and their lives and careers depend on keeping those PIs happy. I’m not surprised that some of them fall to the temptation and slide down the slippery slope… shame on them, but also on their bosses and their reign of terror. Both are to be blamed for this.

  21. anonymous says:

    @20 “their lives and careers depend on keeping those PIs happy”
    Absolutely. I worked for one of the “big names” during my PhD and would regularly hear PI saying stuff like “this data point is obviously wrong, you can remove it” or if two analytical methods give contradictory results “if you want to publish this research you have to decide which of the results is correct”. This, of course, was never in writing, so if anything major ever comes up PI will be innocent, just like this dude Michael Cho. And if anyone thinks that a grad student still has a choice in this situation, I would have to agree, a grad student indeed has a choice to quit. Because if you stay and make your PI unhappy, then forget about conferences, internships and the recommendation letter… oh yeah, you also going to have to TA until the graduation day.

  22. bank says:

    I’m seen fraud conducted several times, one of which was caught and caused the retraction of a Nature paper and several in Biochemistry.
    In each case pressure from the PI to “perform to expectations” was a prime factor in driving misconduct.

  23. aChiromics says:

    @ 20-23: Hah! The big fish at my PhD institution was frequently compared to Frank Underwood. In essence, all students and postdocs were stepping stones: they either held up his expectations for the research project (through honest means or otherwise) or were crushed underfoot. It’s an open secret that several papers from the pre-tenure days are completely irreproducible.

  24. Anonymous BMS Researcher says:

    During my postdoc years I had one big disagreement with a Professor: he wanted me to describe something we expected to do in the near future as though it was already working. When I objected, he said “by the time the paper appears in the journal that will be working.” I replied “we THINK it will be working by then, but until we get it working we don’t actually KNOW it will work, and I refuse to put my name on a paper that says I have done something that I have yet to accomplish.”
    As for the gradual slide from minor lies to major fraud, this trajectory can also go the other way. Interviews of people who took huge risks to do the RIGHT thing often describe a gradual progression from taking a small risk to taking bigger chances. The Yad Vashem archives of The Righteous Among The Nations tell many stories of how somebody first smuggled a small amount of food to a neighbor, or faked a few documents to rescue somebody from the Germans, and by the end of the war they had hidden dozens of people in their basement.
    I expect few people wake up one day and choose that day to become a great villain or great hero. Life is made of many small decisions that only add up in the end to one big decision. Some theologians call this the Fundamental Option; several Popes have specifically rejected the Fundamental Option view in their Encyclicals, but I sure prefer it to the Code of Canon Law.

  25. jbosch says:

    To various comments regarding observing misconduct:
    If you see it you need to report it. If you don’t dare to do it yourself, every University has an Ombudsman.
    Also, if you are on the paper, independent of the order you better make sure you know what the content is and how the data was acquired and interpreted, even if a collaborator contributed the data. It typically is helpful to discuss the manuscript with all authors BEFORE submitting it.
    If you publish, your result should be reproducible, otherwise forget it in the first place. If you feel your data does not hold up to that standard, well then back to the drawing board/lab bench and prove or disprove your hypothesis.
    As an author on a paper you “own your research”, so act accordingly. The more stringent you are towards your own experiments the better scientist you become. Best method in my opinion is make some experiments that you think should prove your idea and then try to tear it apart by all means. If your results are still holding up to the various alternatives you tried, write up the manuscript.

  26. jbosch says:

    Something else to add and worth reading (free access):
    “Scientists today must work in an environment of relentless stress, time pressure, and insecurity, factors that are counterproductive to good science.”
    Infect Immun. 2015 Apr;83(4):1229-33. doi: 10.1128/IAI.02939-14. Epub 2015 Jan 20.
    Competitive science: is competition ruining science?
    PMID: 25605760

  27. anonymous says:

    @jbosh it’s not that easy to see ‘ongoing’ fraud as it seems retrospectively, unless it’s something outrageous like copy-pasting image fragments in a primitive graphics redactor.
    And yes, each time I hear from my PI “I don’t believe these data” or “this contradicts to what we published”, I roll my eyes. But I’m not going to report misconduct because just to prove that I was right would take enormous efforts and would certainly ruin my (and maybe some other person’s) career, while PI will be minorly hurt. All I can and do is to refuse using old data if I can’t reproduce them.
    You may promote Karl Popper’s thoughts as much as you want, but modern biomed science operates pretty much in the opposite way: people don’t look for conditions where their experiment won’t work (there is infinity of such conditions), they are looking where it will work. In the best case scenario, they will just make up a plausible story why it didn’t work otherwise. In the worst (most common) case they just don’t report fails.

  28. Anonymous says:

    @11: Like the white knight hero he always pretends to be, Marty Burke’s (probably) on the case.

  29. Anonymous says:

    Hap on July 2, 2015 12:12 PM writes…
    the penalties and enforcement seem uneven at best. In general, PIs are unlikely to bear any of the consequences of fraud in their group, though they likely received the lion’s share of benefits from it. This implies that there is very little incentive for a PI to check the veracity of his group’s results

    Exactly. I was openly told by my advisor to “put that dot on the curve” and had to constantly resist his attempts to cherry-pick the data. Maybe that’s why I got only X papers and some other grad students got 2X+?

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