Neuron Culture

More fraud — or more light?

As a story in today’s ScienceNow [subscription required] by the indefatigable Jennifer Couzin details, the last week has brought more “expressions of concern” from leading journals over prominent papers written by leading scientists. The latest concern regards papers in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2001 and 2004 and The Lancet in 2004 about oral cancer research done by Jon Sudbø of Oslo’s Norwegian Radium Hospital.

The papers had claimed to make progress in distinguishing which mouth lesions are most at risk for developing into cancer — a breakthrough that might make earlier treatment possible and save many lives. But after NEJM editors found duplicated figures in the 2001 paper, writes Couzin, they examined the papers more closely and apparently pressed Sudbo, who admitted to fabricating some of the evidence. (Intriguing that once again, a duplicated figure led to the undoing of subterfuge. Several of the more notable frauds of the last few years — Hwang, Schon, and now Subdo — came to light when editors or readers noted that illustrations or graphs had been duplicated to buttress supposedly different data sets or manufactured altogether.)

If Sudbo indeed made major fabrications, he will have committed a fraud that is, if less elaborate than Hwang’s, perhaps more appalling, since he’s dealing not with potential breakthroughs but with patients presently in treatment.

Will we see an increase in fudged papers revealed? It’s possible, at least for a while, as editors, tired of getting fooled, may look more closely at papers making or following up large claims, or about which they or others have doubts they ignored before but now bring forth.