Scientific misconduct taken too lightly

Nitin Aggarwal was a graduate student at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW). Unlike most graduate students, however, he fabricated data in his thesis, publications, and grants. He defended his thesis in 2009 and won the first place prize for outstanding dissertation, after which he took a job as Assistant Scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW).

In 2013 however, his data fabrication finally caught up with him. The Office of Research Integrity (ORI) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services began a case of misconduct and found that Aggarwal had fabricated data for six figures that he used in his thesis, two grant applications, and two publications. Specifically, the ORI found that Aggarwal falsified data, including manipulating experimental images taken from unrelated experiments and fabricating quantitative data for bar graphs and statistical analyses.

This seems to be a very standard case of misconduct, and the ORI concluded that Aggarwal did falsify data. That said, what is surprising is the lackluster consequences for Aggarwal. The ORI decided that his research on NIH grants for the next three years would have to be supervised and that he could not serve on any committees for the NIH.

Despite a clear case of data falsification, the consequences for Aggarwal were mere inconveniences. Aggarwal is now working at Bristol-Myers-Squibb, a large pharmaceutical company, so it does not appear that his career was negatively affected by the ORI’s decision.

Another part of this story that stands out is the fact that Aggarwal falsified some of the data in his PhD thesis, which does not appear to be a major issue in the eyes of the ORI or the Medical College of Wisconsin, where he received his degree. The two papers have not been retracted, nor do they have any notes at all about containing falsified data. If we are to maintain the integrity of scientific inquiry, all his fraudulent publications should be retracted immediately, and so should his PhD. As of today, only one of his papers was retracted. When scientists falsify data to attain their PhD, they cannot possibly have completed the requirements for graduation, and the PhD should be invalidated. The thesis should be reevaluated without the falsified data, and the institution should decide if they would allow the scientist to do any necessary extra experiments to complete the thesis.

Falsification of data was taken too lightly in this case; if it had been discovered while he was a graduate student, Aggarwal would have been expelled from the program, or at the very least, would have had to write his thesis without the falsified data. These actions should be taken retroactively out of fairness to others, and to the scientific process.

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