You may have seen the headlines about a large settlement ($112.5 million) that Duke University is paying the government. This goes back to Erin Potts-Kant, a clinical research coordinator at Duke Health, as well as (former) professor William Foster and (former) chief of the Pulmonary Division Monica Kraft. The details are many, and some of them are in filings that are under seal, but the broad outline is that Potts-Kant falsified data on rodent lung studies for both grant applications/renewals (60 of them!) and publications (17 of them retracted so far). The settlement document says that “nearly all” of her experiments were faked – but, she said, only if the data didn’t look like she wanted it to, from which we can conclude that it mostly didn’t.
She knew what results people wanted, and worked diligently to fake those up for them. She testified that she didn’t feel personal pressure to produce good results, because (as she put it) “she could always find a job somewhere else”, but rather noted the pressure that the researchers were under to produce, and decided to help them out. Potts-Kant worked at the university for 8 years, was promoted during that time, and presented this work at conferences. Eight years of faked-up happy-talk results: there’s a psychological element here. Not only is a person less likely to question “good” results, but over time, suspicions about them become harder to entertain. Surely this stuff hasn’t been faked for that long? For years? From the beginning? Well, in this case it was, and the longer something like this goes on, the harder the reckoning at the end.
You can follow the way all this developed by going backwards through the archives at Retraction Watch, and it’s quite a tale. For example, along the way, Potts-Kant herself was charged with embezzling money from the university. Foster, the scientific PI over her, complained to the university about this – not the embezzlement, you understand, about the accusation – and pointed out how crucial her work was to grant renewals, progress reports, publications, etc. This turned out not to be a good thing to have on the record.
The whistleblower involved, Joseph Thomas, also held that Foster and Kraft (and the university administration in general) ignored credible accusations of misconduct. Actually, he went further, saying the the university knowingly submitted (and caused to be submitted) falsified data in support of all those grant applications. The settlement, as I understand it, does not lay that question to rest, but the fact that Duke was willing to pay up to this degree perhaps speaks to that point. Since this was a lawsuit filed under the False Claims Act, Thomas is entitled to a share of the settlement, and will be receiving $33.8 million. These are the sorts of stories that (one would think) should make institutions think long and hard about the implications of trying to stonewall behavior like this. Duke tried to get this lawsuit thrown out at one point, to no avail, and now instead of making Thomas go away they get to make him rich instead.
Postscript: Interestingly, if you go back through those Retraction Watch archives, you’ll start to blend into a series of stories about yet another Duke research fraud, which I wrote about myself here. It is fair to say that Duke has not been enhancing its reputation for medical research these last few years, and as an alumus of its Chemistry department, all I’ll say personally is that I’m glad I left in 1988.