THE UNIVERSITY of Connecticut took a remarkable step this month after a special review board concluded that a researcher there had fabricated data: Rather than issuing vague statements or simply declining comment, as other universities have in cases of possible misconduct by their scholars, UConn put forth a 49-page account that spells out what it believes researcher Dipak Das did wrong.
In doing so, the university provided a factual basis for dismissal proceedings, which are now underway; beyond that, UConn made it possible for outsiders to form their own opinions about the school’s actions - and the soundness of Das’s research. It also provided a model for other research institutions about how to set the scientific record straight.
Das, the director of UConn’s Cardiovascular Research Center, is one of a number of scholars who have explored the possible health benefits of resveratrol, a chemical found in red wine. Wine buffs weren’t the only ones who stand to benefit if these benefits pan out; dietary supplement firms are creating products that use the chemical, and Das appears to have had some relationship with at least one such firm. But after the federal government’s Office of Research Integrity relayed a complaint in 2008 of possible misconduct in a research paper produced by Das’s center, UConn launched an extensive investigation. After the special review panel concluded that Das and his team had manipulated images in dozens of instances, UConn sent letters to 11 journals that had published their work, vowed to return $890,000 in federal grants, and started disciplinary proceedings. The university also noted that it is investigating others in Das’s lab.
UConn’s detailed reporting of the Das situation contrasts sharply with, for instance, Harvard’s limited explanation of its inquiry into the work of renowned psychologist Marc Hauser. Even after an investigating committee found Hauser “solely responsible . . . for eight instances of scientific misconduct,’’ administrators were remarkably vague about the nature of his offenses. A dean’s letter noting that the data in one of Hauser’s published experiments “did not support the published findings’’ left open an obvious question: Why not?
A level of caution and discretion is warranted in these investigations; ill-founded accusations of misconduct can destroy scholarly reputations built up through years of research. MIT linguistics professor Noam Chomsky and several other scholars signed a letter last year characterizing Harvard’s inquiry into Hauser’s work, and the resulting media coverage, as having a “distinctive ring of McCarthyism.’’
This defensive attitude goes too far. To conduct research-misconduct inquiries in a secretive manner is a disservice to other researchers who depend on the integrity of published papers. Das apparently wasn’t the star in his field that Hauser was. Still, according to the website Retraction Watch, 30 of Das’s papers have been cited more than 100 times. UConn’s extensive disclosure tells other scholars which papers it believes were compromised. Furthermore, it offers junior researchers some clues about when to suspect possible misconduct; Das’s lab was organized in a way that made it difficult for individuals to detect flaws in their colleagues’ work.
In some ways, UConn’s public approach is even a service to Das himself; by making its allegations clear, he can prepare a thoughtful defense. In the end, though, a research institution has a duty not only to its scholars but to the research community as a whole. In its handling of the Das case, UConn has fulfilledthat duty admirably.