The New York Times Magazine this week has a troubling story of scientific misconduct, involving the fraudulent research of Eric Poehlman:
Before his fall from grace, Poehlman oversaw a lab where nearly a dozen students and postdoctoral researchers carried out his projects. His research earned him recognition among his peers and invitations to speak at conferences around the world. And he made nearly $140,000, one of the top salaries at the University of Vermont. All of that began to change six years ago, when [Walter] DeNino [a technician in Poehlman’s lab] took his concerns about anomalies in Poehlman’s data to university officials. The subsequent investigation — a collaboration among the University of Vermont, the Office of Research Integrity (which is within the Department of Health and Human Services) and the United States Department of Justice — uncovered fraudulent research that stretched back through almost half of Poehlman’s career. The revelations led to the retraction or correction of 10 scientific papers, and Poehlman was banned forever from receiving public research money. He was only the second scientist in the United States to face criminal prosecution for falsifying research data.
At 50, with his career in ruins and his reputation destroyed, Poehlman could only hope to avoid one final humiliation: becoming the first researcher sentenced to prison for scientific misconduct. Citing the nearly $200,000 Poehlman had paid in restitution, his attorneys had asked the judge to sentence him to supervised probation. “I am hoping that you can consider this sentence fair and just to me, as well as the community,” Poehlman pleaded, without “a sentence of incarceration or imprisonment.”
Cases of research fraud on this scale are thankfully very rare, but what Poehlman did is a black mark on all of science. The story lays out all the particulars, and is particularly good at describing the wrenching process DeNino went through in determining that the data were fraudulent, and finally deciding to set the investigation in motion. It was the right thing to do, but it took guts, and he should be applauded.