Published online 17 August 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.414

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High price to pay for misconduct investigations

A single investigation into research malpractice cost US$525,000.

Scientist protecting computerA study has attempted to put a figure on the cost of miscoduct investigations to US universities.Images.com/Corbis

Investigations into research misconduct cost US institutions more than US$110 million per year, estimates a study published this week. But experts contacted by Nature question whether calculating the cost of investigation is the right way to measure the impact of research misconduct.

The research, published in PLoS Medicine1, is based on the costs of a single recent case of research misconduct at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York. In the case, a senior scientist was accused of fabricating data in at least one grant application, and an internal investigation reached a conclusion of research misconduct. As the work was partly funded by the US Department of Health and Human Services, the matter was referred to the department's Office of Research Integrity (ORI), which has yet to close the case or name the researcher involved. But the length and complexity of the investigation has already motivated Arthur Michalek, the institute's senior vice-president for educational affairs, biostatistician Alan Hutson and their colleagues to try to tally the costs. "Our focus was on what we could measure directly with real dollars," says Hutson. "Our point was to show dramatically how it all adds up."

Michalek and his colleagues estimate that this single investigation cost about $525,000. This includes $512,000 to cover salaries for witnesses and investigators; clerical support costs of about $2,500; and about $10,000 to pay for other support staff — security, information-technology staff and forensic computer experts. Michalek and his team suggest that, if all investigations cost about as much as theirs did, the 217 cases reported to the ORI last year cost institutions more than $110 million in total. That doesn't include cases reported to other science-funding agencies.

Pricey panel

Lawyer C. K. Gunsalus, an expert on research misconduct at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says she does not see much justification for the researchers' assumption that all investigations are as costly as the Roswell Park case. That investigation was expensive, she says, partly because of the large number of people on the investigation panel — eight in this case. In her experience, investigations usually involve fewer people and cost less. She says that costs can be managed by involving people who have previous experience of research misconduct cases, so that the internal investigation is done properly the first time around, and passes muster with the funding agency.

Nick Steneck, director of research ethics and integrity at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and a consultant for the ORI, agrees. "When you buy any cheap product it comes back to haunt you," he says, pointing out that an institution can be fined if an investigation is found to be inadequate.

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But Steneck questions whether calculating the costs of investigation is the right way to quantify the impact of research misconduct. He says that the costs of investigation are dwarfed by the impact that the fraudulent research can have on policy or medicine. He gives the example of Scott S. Reuben, an anaesthesiologist at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts, who was investigated for fabricating 21 studies over 13 years on the use of anti-inflammatory drugs to manage post-operative pain.

"The cost of misprescribing for 10–15 years is hundreds of millions of dollars, compared to half a million for an investigation," Steneck says. Although he disagrees with the approach taken by Michalek and his colleagues in their study, Steneck does agree that there is a real need for more research on the economic impact of misconduct. "I really feel it's very important to move ahead with cost estimates. I'd like to see somebody take this up. I just feel this study is too limited."

Sociologist Eric Campbell of Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts has published articles on the relationships between physicians and industry, including conflicts of interests. He says that he would love to do a study estimating the wider financial impacts of research misconduct — "if I could find people to fund it". He adds that it is up to the ORI or other agencies of the US federal government to take an interest in studying the impact of misconduct, as well as policing it. 

  • References

    1. Michalek, A. M., Hutson, A. D., Wicher, C. P. & Trump, D. L. PLoS Med. 7, e1000318 (2010). | Article

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  • #60818

    I do not object in any way to either people criticizing the PLoS One approach or people criticizing PLoS or open access in any way.

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