Like many, I was interested last week by the announcement that a University of Connecticut professor responsible for some of the research on resveratrol, a plant-based phenolic compound linked to various health benefits, had been accused of falsifying and fabricating data. According to published reports, UConn officials found 145 cases of faked data that turned up in 26 published research articles by Dr. Depak Das. Resveratrol occurs in many plants but most notably in grape skins and seeds, and one of the compounds associated with health benefits of red wine.
Needless to say, reports of Dr. Das’s wrongdoing were disappointing to those of us that enjoy an occasional glass of Caberbet Sauvignon or Merlot. More importantly, although Dr. Das’s research was a relatively minor part of the resveratrol story, these types of reports invariably provide grist for the mill for those that like to question the motives and veracity of scientists. Only Dr. Das can ultimately comment on his motivation for the con job. Dr. Das is a tenured professor and head of his university’s Cardiovascular Research Center so presumably career advancement was not a primary factor in the ruse.
In theory, a well designed and well executed study that provides useful results should be publishable. In reality, the adage that ‘it’s difficult to publish negative results’ often proves true. I’m not familiar with Dr. Das’s studies or the data he’s reported to have faked, but suppose, for example, he had found that resveratrol did not reduce heart attack risk. Assuming the trials were experimentally valid, there is still value in that knowledge; it could save others from conducting expensive but likely fruitless research or it may suggest other avenues of research. Unfortunately, it’s often easier to publish positive results and use those data as the basis for future grant development. I’m not privy to all the details at this juncture, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this started off as fudging a few numbers, which, in turn, formed the basis for other proposals and started a self perpetuating cycle.
As I noted, Dr. Das is an established scientist near the top of his game. But the need to keep science clean extends to all levels. In some regards, the pressure to fudge data is greatest at the entry level. At research intensive universities, young assistant professors must generate enough grant funding and publications to secure tenure within six years of their hire. Denial of tenure means time to hit the road. Many universities are even opting to not reappoint some new faculty at the three-year mid-point review, which was often perceived as a ‘rubber stamp’ in the past.
Falsifying data in science is analogous to gambling in sports. Both represent the ‘third rail’. People wonder why baseball came down so hard on Pete Rose. Once gambling is introduced in sports, fans assume the outcome is predetermined and the sport is done. Likewise, science runs the risk of becoming irrelevant if the public assumes that researchers are only going to conclude whatever will get them published or help them land the next grant. It sounds like UConn and the US Office of Research Integrity are preparing to throw the book at Dr. Das. If he’s guilty as charged, they have to.