Lessons from the Pearce affair: handling scientific fraud

BMJ 1995; 310 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.310.6994.1547 (Published 17 June 1995) Cite this as: BMJ 1995;310:1547
  1. Stephen Lock
  1. Former editor, BMJ Aldeburgh, Suffolk IP15 5EE

    Belatedly, Britain should abandon its lax approach to scientific fraud

    Last week Malcolm Pearce, a British gynaecologist, was removed from the medical register for fraud: he had published two papers in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology describing work that had never taken place (p 1554).1 Less than nine months had elapsed between the whistle being blown on Pearce and his removal from the register. Outside observers might therefore conclude that, like other countries, Britain has established methods of preventing, detecting, and managing misconduct in research. They would be wrong. That the Pearce affair was handled well was unusual: the principal of Pearce's medical school knew what to do and was determined to do it—speedily and while protecting the rights of both the accused and the whistleblower. In most other medical institutions in Britain nothing would have happened2; the affair would have been brushed under the carpet, and the whistleblower would probably have been hounded out of his or her job.

    Despite a report from the Royal College of Physicians,3 Britain has learnt little about handling fraud since the Darsee affair in the United States first brought the subject into prominence in 1983.4 This is despite a succession of other major scientific frauds in biomedicine.For example, the Office of Research Integrity, a branch of the US Public Health Service set up to investigate fraud, considered 73 cases in 1994.5 One particular abuse has indeed been tackled in Britain. Several general practitioners who engaged in fraud during drug trials have been struck off by the General Medical Council,6 but this has been largely because their frauds emerged through pharmaceutical companies' thorough auditing procedures and because the companies have taken an aggressive approach towards tackling fraud. The same has not applied within academia or the NHS. Until the Pearce …

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