If there is one thing that can send chills up my spine it’s learning that research in a peer-reviewed study was fabricated outright. I’m not talking about data that was flawed due to a systematic error or poor control or even data that was “cherry-picked.” I hesitate to call such events examples of bad science, because they’re really not. Bad science is when data is interpreted incorrectly, studies flawed in design or when outcomes are reported wrongly in the media. Fabricated data is not simply bad science, it’s fraud.
One of the most dangerous things about fabrication of scientific data is that it’s very difficult to detect or screen for when studies are published. The peer-review process is by no means an audit of the study data and it does not confirm findings of the study. Rather, peer review simply attempts to determine if the methodology and analysis of the study meets basic standards for scientific rigor. Implicit to this is the presumption that the researchers were honest, and usually they are.
Unfortunately, while out and out fraud may be uncommon (or at least, wr *think* it is) in scientific research, it does happen. Andrew Wakefield is one notorious example of a researcher who presented data that he had completely forged. Now, another example has come to light.
Parkinson’s Researcher Fabricated Data
Neuroscientist Mona Thiruchelvam agrees to retract two studies linking neurodegeneration to pesticides.
A former assistant professor at the University of Medicine and Dentistry, New Jersey (UMDNJ) committed research misconduct by fabricating data, according to an investigation by the university and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Research Integrity (ORI). The ORI, which announced its findings on Thursday (June 28), determined that Mona Thiruchelvam falsified cell count data published in two papers in 2005 in Environmental Health Perspectives and Journal of Biological Chemistry, both of which she has agreed to retract.
Thiruchelvam fabricated stereological cell count data in two studies on how pesticides influence neuronal mechanisms involved in Parkinson’s disease (PD). The studies reported the results of 13 new experiments that supposedly counted nigrostriatal neurons in the brains of mice and rats, but an investigation spearheaded by the UMDNJ determined those counts were never taken. The nigrostriatal pathway is a major dopamine circuit in the brain, and loss of neurons in this area is one of the main features of Parkinson’s disease.
The papers slated for retraction investigate the neurological response to the combined pesticides paraquat and maneb, and suggest the pesticide atrazine also has a role in disrupting dopamine pathways. The false data were used to create several summary bar graphs, which Thiruchelvam modified to support the hypothesis that proteasomal dysfunction is higher in males than females with PD, and that exposure to paraquat and maneb enhances this effect.
Gary Miller, who cited the Environmental Health Perspectives paper (which has been cited 36 times, according to ISI), said his lab has always been skeptical about the association between certain herbicides and Parkinson’s. “There is strong evidence of an association between pesticides and PD, but figuring out exactly which compounds are driving this has been difficult,” he told The Scientist by email. “I suspect some laboratories have pursued studies based on these findings, which is unfortunate. The retraction of these papers doesn’t help the field.”
The article goes on to state that the forged data was only detected after computer files containing the study data were examined by forensic computing experts and determined to be modified copies of the same data file. The files were requested after another faculty member raised concerns that Thiruchelvam had been publishing data on cell density, but had not been using the laboratory that had the equipment necessary to measure cell density. In her defense, Thiruchelvam produced a witness, who then turned out to be false.
What is chilling is that she could have gotten away with this very easily had things been slightly different. If nobody had noticed her absence from the laboratory before publishing the data or if the facility had multiple laboratories of this type, thus making it hard to notice she was not present, nobody would have had a clue that something wasn’t right. If she had thought to visit the laboratory and go through the motions of using the microscope system, again, nobody would have been the wiser.
The significance of these kind of studies and the results of the fabricated data shouldn’t be underestimated. They can drive government policy, result in huge sums of money being spent on further study, encourage frivolous lawsuits and bogus treatments. It can undermine confidence in scientific research and destroy the reputations of institutions and co-authors of studies who may have not been aware of the dishonesty.
I have no doubt that this study will be cited by those with a vested interest in promoting the idea that Parkinson’s is caused by certain pesticides or “toxins.” Once the cat is out of the bag, it’s impossible to negate all the damage done by such studies. Andrew Wakefield, for example, continues to be cited as a source of data on the alleged autism-vaccine connection, despite having been proven a liar.
As for Mona Thiruchelvam, hopefully she has lost her job by now. No university or reputable research institution should ever even consider hiring her, regardless of any apologies. All studies she has worked on in the past will now likely need to be audited and re-examined. She should be liable for the cost of that and the money lost due to the study she corrupted. She must be stripped of any kind of scientific fellowships, accreditation or tenure she has received. This woman has no right to ever act in any professional scientific capacity ever again.
Really, I’d like to see people like this face jail time, because the level of fraud committed and the damages this can produce easily rise to the level where the criminal justice system should be involved. However, since that generally does not happen, I suppose I’ll be happy when I see Thiruchelvam in a job capacity more suited to her, for example working at the drive thru at McDonalds.
If you want to know what she looks like, there are pictures on this page. I just didn’t republish them because they may be copyrighted.
This entry was posted on Friday, July 6th, 2012 at 1:23 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Quackery, media. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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