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Swedish court rules against doctor at centre of row over destroyed research data

BMJ 2005; 331 doi: (Published 21 July 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:180
  1. Caroline White
  1. London

    Christopher Gillberg, the psychiatrist at the centre of a dispute about granting access to research data in Sweden, has been given a conditional sentence and fined 37 500 kronor (£2800; $4800; £4000) plus legal costs of 80 000 kronor for “misuse of office” by the lower criminal court in Gothenburg.

    The conditional sentence obliges him not to commit any similar offences for a period of two years.

    The court ruled that Gillberg, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Gothenburg University and a world expert in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, had acted “wilfully.”

    He had refused to follow his employer's directives to make his research data available to the university management and had been in contempt of court, the court ruled.

    Two previous civil court orders in February and August 2003 had granted Eva Kärfve, associate professor of sociology at the University of Lund, and Leif Elinder, an Uppsala paediatrician, access to Professor Gillberg's patient records on the disorder (BMJ 2004;329:72).

    Appeals by Professor Gillberg and Gothenburg University against these orders were dismissed. And the university was strongly criticised by the legal ombudsman for its handling of the matter, the court heard.

    The court heard that Professor Gillberg had on 18 August 2003 instructed Kerstin Lamberg, university administrator, not to hand over the data or keys to the office in which they were kept.

    Kerstin Lamberg, Carina Gillberg, and Peder Rasmussen face a separate legal case, brought by the university: in May 2004 they admitted destroying some of Professor Gillberg's research data in a bid to protect patients' confidentiality.

    Two other university colleagues, vice chancellor Gunnar Svedberg and board chairman Arne Wittlöf, were charged together with Professor Gillberg with misuse of office over their alleged role in withholding access to the research data.

    The case against Arne Wittlöf was dismissed. He successfully argued that the responsibility for handing over the documents was the vice chancellor's, not the board's.

    Professor Svedberg, by contrast, was found guilty of the charge of misuse of office, fined 32 000 kronor, and ordered to pay legal costs of 32 500 kronor.

    The court ruled that although the vice chancellor had intended to comply with the court order in August 2003, and had requested Professor Gillberg's cooperation, he had not done so.

    He was guilty of negligence rather than wilfulness, the court ruled. Two of the judges felt that Professor Svedberg was not liable but agreed to go with the majority decision.

    The court has now awarded Professor Kärfve and Dr Elinder the right to view the remaining data and ordered the university to take steps to protect the identity of the individuals concerned.

    “Had the Gillberg group done so from the beginning, events would have taken another course,” said Professor Kärfve.

    But although the court has ruled against him Professor Gillberg contends that the original ruling granting access was flawed, a view shared by “many high ranking, legally trained professionals,” he wrote to the BMJ this month.

    He had contacted the study participants to ask if they would be prepared to have the data released, he said. “All but one family refused.”

    He described the recent verdict as “a staggering blow to all medical research in Sweden … We have already had many indications that people in general will now refrain from taking part in medical research projects,” he said.

    He added that both he and Professor Svedberg have now appealed the court's verdict. The prosecutor is already appealing on the grounds that the ruling against Professor Svedberg was too lenient and that the case against Arne Wittlöf should not have been dismissed, he said.