Why cannot a concept of tort or “product liability”apply to scientists?

Cases of scientific misconduct do not seem to lead to any significant sanctions. Scientists are not subject to the codes of ethics that other professions have (even if they are not always complied with). Lawyers and doctors and engineers can be “disbarred” or otherwise forbidden from practising their professions when found guilty of incompetence or fraud.  Why then can a physicist or a chemist or a biochemist not be subject to the same professional sanctions for misconduct? Learned Institutes of Physics or Chemistry or Mathematics rarely get involved in the ethics breaches of their members. Scientists also need to be held responsible (liable) for their work and in cases of fraudulent science or misconduct, the sanctions applied need to be seen to be in balance with the extent of the offence.

There have been many cases of scientific misconduct where the offender seems to get little more than a slap on the wrist or a mild reprimand. In some cases they leave one institution and merely move to another. Their degrees are rarely revoked and they usually continue “working” or faking work in some other institution.

Retraction Watch addresses the details of the case of the fraud committed by Dr Jatinder Ahluwalia at University College London which led to the retraction of a paper in Nature.

Earlier this month, we posted an item about the retraction of a 2004Nature paper, “The large-conductance Ca2+-activated K+ channel is essential for innate immunity.” (That post was followed up with provocative comments from a researcher not affiliated with the authors, about what should happen to papers whose results can’t be replicated.)

One of the paper’s authors, Jatinder Ahluwalia, hadn’t signed the retraction, and the notice referred to “Supplementary Information” that hadn’t yet been made available. Today, University College London (UCL) posted that supplementary information, which was the report of a panel that investigated charges of research misconduct against Ahluwalia. That report fills in a lot of details about what preceded the retraction.

UCL’s investigation found that Ahluwalia:

  • falsified the results of experiments conducted by him, on UCL premises, thereby committing research fraud, as defined by paragraph 1.1.iv of the UCL Procedure for Investigating and Resolving Allegations of Misconduct in Academic Research. It was alleged that Dr Ahluwalia altered the numbering of files of research results so as to misrepresent the results of experiments conducted by him;
  • further falsified and misrepresented the results of experiments conducted by him, on UCL premises, by the use of materials other than those specified in the reports of the results of those experiments, thereby committing research fraud, as defined by paragraph 1.1.iv of the UCL Procedure for Investigating and Resolving Allegations of Misconduct in Academic Research;
  • interfered with the experiments of others so as to distort their results, thus falsifying the results of research experiments conducted by others employed by UCL on UCL premises, thereby committing research fraud, as defined in paragraph 1.1.iv of the UCL Procedure for Investigating and Resolving Allegations of Misconduct in Academic Research. It was alleged that Dr Ahluwalia deliberately contaminated chemicals used by other researchers in their experiments so as to falsify the results of those experiments, in order to conceal the falsification by him of the results of his own experiments.

Dr Ahluwalia is currently employed as a Senior Lecturer & Programme leader in BSc & MSc Pharmacology at the School of Health and Biosciences, University of East London,  Stratford Campus, Romford Road, London E15 4LZ, United Kingdom. For having committed fraud and engaged in sabotage and even though he is no longer employed by UCL, it does not seem that his behaviour has led to any significant sanctions.

Recently a Harvard University investigation found its high-profile Professor Marc Hauser guilty of 8 counts of misconduct and sent him on a year’s “book leave” and he will resume his activities next year. He does not lose tenure and his degrees are not revoked and the sanction seems relatively mild in relation to his behaviour.

The product that researchers and scientists produce is publications – mainly as papers published in scientific journals and as books. Scientific misconduct (whether plagiarism or faking data or inventing data or cherry picking data) leads occasionally to dismissals (but not always) and generally very little else. It seems to me that the concept of tort or “product liability” should be applicable to the work of scientists and researchers where their work is the result of faking data, fraud or other misconduct since it would be work that “had not been done in good faith”. Tort would apply because the ramifications of their misconduct would extend far beyond their employment contracts with their employers.

Tort  (from Wikipedia) is a wrong:

that involves a breach of a civil duty owed to someone else. It is differentiated from criminal wrongdoing which involves a breach of a duty owed to society, and also does not include breach of contract. Tort cases may comprise such topics as auto accidents, false imprisonment, slander and libel, product liability (such as defectively designed consumer products), and environmental pollution (toxic torts).

Clearly a researcher has a civic duty to his co-workers, his department, his institution, his publishers and to the global community working in the same field. Scientific misconduct is a clear breach of these duties and any such researcher must then be both accountable and liable. Sanctions in such cases must be commensurate and seen to be commensurate with the offence. A year’s sabbatical from Harvard or merely moving across town to be employed at another university does not seem to be in balance with the weight of the misconduct.

The employment contract of a researcher with any institution no doubt has the appropriate language which allows sanctions (including dismissal) for breach of contract. However the liability of a fraudulent researcher – especially with published papers and books – goes beyond a simple breach of contract with his employer and extends to the entire community of workers in the field and even to all readers who may be influenced by the fraudulent work. For commensurate sanctions to be possible it becomes necessary for the concept of tort to be introduced and for  “product liability” to reside with the researcher whereby he can be held accountable by the entire audience his “product” is addressed to.

Authors of scientific papers and books need to be responsible and liable for their products.

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4 Responses to “Why cannot a concept of tort or “product liability”apply to scientists?”

  1. “Set a thief to catch a thief”? « The k2p blog Says:

    […] a thief to catch a thief”? By ktwop Earlier posts have dealt with the case of Jatinder Ahluwalia – a pharmacologist – who was found to have […]

  2. sceptic Says:

    It seems pretty clear that “internal” investigations will ALWAYS blame the more junior scapegoats. It is easiest for UCL to blame Dr Ahluwalia, especially now that he is no longer at UCL, especially since this would not compromise the reputation or research grants of UCL personnel, e.g. Dr. Ahluwalia’s supervisor. Frankly, given that this paper was immediately doubted by other scientists, one would have expected more care on the part of the supervisor. If UCL wants to show any ethical validity in such cases, it is necessary that such investigations be carried out by personnel EXTERNAL to UCL and that the choice of the individuals to carry out the investigation should be independent of UCL.

    What about the journals? They also have a vested interest in seeing that such situations remain as “obscure” as possible, that only low level scapegoats emerge, that “influential” people are not discredited and that their “refereeing system” is not discredited. Was the usual Nature refereeing process applied or were “insider” pressures exerted on editors and /or referees?

    Frankly what should happen in such cases is that an external, independent body undertake the investigation – looking at both how the fraud was committed and at how the refereeing process failed. Both the journal and the authors of the discredited paper should be required to participate in this process under penalty of publishing the fact of their refusal.

    There is no doubt that an “insider mafia” operates in many cases and it is as necessary to clarify whether the supervisor exercised the proper “due diligence” and how the paper made it through a refereeing process as to assign blame to a low level scientist. Neither UCL nor Nature are in a position to guarantee that a proper independent investigation has been carried out.

  3. Medical ghostwriters and scientists guilty of misconduct should be liable « The k2p blog Says:

    […] Why cannot a concept of tort or “product liability”apply to scientists?   […]

  4. The Heidelberg affidavit: German Universities take action to prevent PhD fraud « The k2p blog Says:

    […] have long felt that the work of researchers and scientists cannot and should not be devoid of liability (whether criminal or civil liability) in cases of scientific misconduct or fraud. Recently two […]

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