Adventures in Ethics and Science

You may recall the case of Luk Van Parijs, the promising young associate professor of biology at MIT who was fired in October of 2005 for fabrication and falsification of data. (I wrote about the case here and here.)

Making stuff up in one’s communications with other scientists, whether in manuscripts submitted for publication, grant applications, scientific presentation, or even personal communications, is a very bad thing. It undermines the knowledge-building project in which the community of science is engaged. As an institution serious about its role in this knowledge-building enterprise, MIT did well to identify Van Parijs as a bad actor, to take him out of play, and to correct the scientific record impacted by Van Parijs’s lies.

MIT wasn’t the only institution with a horse in this race, though. Given that many of Van Parijs’s misrepresentations occurred in work supported by federal grants, or in application for federal grant money, the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI), an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services, launched a thorough investigation of the case. As reported in the Federal Register, ORI has now taken final action in the Van Parijs case:

Based on the reports of separate investigations conducted by Harvard Medical School (HMS)/Brigham and
Women’s Hospital (BWH), California Institute of Technology (CalTech), and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and additional analysis conducted by the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) in its oversight
review, the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) found that Dr. Luk Van Parijs, former Graduate Student, Department of Pathology, HMS, former Research Fellow and Instructor of Pathology, BWH, former Postdoctoral
Fellow, Department of Biology, CalTech, and former Associate Professor, Department of Biology, Center for Cancer Research, MIT, engaged in scientific misconduct in research supported by National Institute of
Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), National Institutes of Health (NIH), grants U19 AI56900, R21 AI49897, R01 AI42100, P01 AI35297, R37 AI25022, R01 AI32531, National Cancer Institute, NIH, grant R01
CA51462, and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), NIH, grant P30 ES02109, and National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), NIH, grant R01 GM57931. …

Specifically, PHS found that Respondent engaged in scientific misconduct by including false data in seven published papers, three submitted papers (with two earlier versions submitted for one of
these), one submitted book chapter, and multiple presentations as follows:

What follows is a detailed account of the particular lies Van Parijs told — experiments he claimed to have run that were not run, plots he said were made from one data set that were actually recycled from other experiments, transgenic mice he claimed to have made that did not exist, etc. — as well as which publications, grant applications, and presentations included these lies. This is precisely the information that scientists who relied upon Van Parijs’s reports as honest scientific communications need to work out where the problems are. (It’s the opposite of the low-content retraction.)

Granted, the map of where the lies are located comes pretty late in the game, given that MIT was investigating Van Parijs back in 2004, and that the papers in which the lies were told date back to 1997. Still, it is useful for other researchers working in the same scientific neighborhood to have a definitive list of established mistruths in this piece of the scientific record.

That Van Parijs was lying doesn’t, of course, rule out that honest scientific labor could establish some of the same findings. (This time, though, they’d be actual findings, rather than hunches supported with fabricated data.) As well, the established mistruths reported by ORI are no proof that Van Parijs wasn’t telling other lies in these papers, grant applications, and presentations.

So, beyond being exposed as a liar, what happens to Van Parijs?

Dr. Van Parijs has entered into a Voluntary Exclusion Agreement in which he has voluntarily agreed, for a period of five (5) years, beginning on December 22, 2008:

(1) to exclude himself from any contracting or subcontracting with any agency of the United States Government and from eligibility or involvement in nonprocurement programs of the United States Government referred to as “covered transactions” pursuant to HHS’ Implementation (2 CFR Part 376 et seq.) of OMB Guidelines to Agencies on Government wide Debarment and Suspension (2 CFR, Part 180); and

(2) To exclude himself from serving in any advisory capacity to PHS, including but not limited to service on any PHS advisory committee, board, and/or peer review committee, or as a consultant.

This means that, conceivably, Van Parijs could turn up on December 22, 2013 and start applying for federal grants to do science. I would think, though, that his changes for success would depend on demonstrating that he had been rehabilitated — that he fully grasped the impact of his conduct on the community of science and on the body of reliable knowledge that community works together to build, and that it would be unthinkable for him to repeat such conduct.

Whether after the five year exclusion period he can convince the granting agencies — or his fellow scientists — that he is worthy of their trust remains to be seen.


  1. #1 PlausibleAccuracy
    January 29, 2009

    I really respect the researchers who brought this fabrication to light in the first place. It has been my personal experience that the most harm does not come to the person who is engaged in unethical content, but instead befalls the researchers who rely on the professor for advancement of their careers.

    My own graduate career involved an eerily similar situation (although one key difference is that we the students were not aware of the unethical conduct until the investigation was well under way), and it has more or less derailed my career goals. To risk this outcome in order to uphold the values of scientific research is a truly admirable thing.

  2. #2 Comrade PhysioProf
    January 31, 2009

    There is no fucking chance that this dude will ever be allowed back into the scientific enterprise as a PI.

    I am staggered by the scope of his fraud. Imagine if he put that huge amount of time and effort into actually doing science?

  3. #3 Darkshadowyn
    April 18, 2009

    First off yes what he did was wrong, but secondly everyone makes mistakes and he’s admitted the mistakes he’s made. Maybe what you should consider is also in a humaine kind of way….Prof. Van Parijs has also got to live with those mistakes for the rest of his life. Sooner or later after he has come to terms with what he has done, Authorities will see that and give him a second chance. Data falsification-there’s no excuse for that, but everyone deserves a second we all know humans weren’t born evil and mistakes and obstacles are there to be made and to be overcome at some stage.

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