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Head To Head

Should research fraud be a crime?

BMJ 2014; 349 doi: (Published 15 July 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;349:g4532
  1. Zulfiqar A Bhutta, Robert Harding chair in global child health and policy1,
  2. Julian Crane, director2
  1. 1Center for Global Child Health, Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, Canada
  2. 2Wellington Asthma Research Group, Department of Medicine, University of Otago Wellington, PO Box 7343, Wellington 6242, New Zealand
  1. Correspondence to Z A Bhutta zulfiqar.bhutta{at}, J Crane julian.crane{at}

Zulfiqar A Bhutta says that criminal sanctions are necessary to deter growing deliberate research misconduct, which can ultimately harm patients. Julian Crane disagrees: he doubts that sanctions will have any deterrent effect and worries that criminalisation would undermine trust

Yes—Zulfiqar A Bhutta

The fact that research fraud is common and possibly on the rise globally isn’t news any more. A review of all 2047 retracted biomedical research articles indexed by PubMed up to 3 May 2012 found that 67.4% of retractions were attributable to scientific misconduct, including fraud or suspected fraud (43.4%), duplicate publication (14.2%), and plagiarism (9.8%).1 Other assessments indicate that the number of articles retracted a year increased 19-fold from 2001 to 2010, and the increase was still 11-fold after repeat offenders were excluded and growth of the literature had been adjusted for.2

The typology of research malfeasance varies, from sloppy research to outright deliberate fraud. Most serious research fraud relates to fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism.3 Estimates of prevalence may yet be conservative. In a meta-analysis of survey data, Fanelli suggested that 2% of all scientists admitted to falsifying, fabricating, or modifying data at least once.4 The scale of research fraud ranges from individual high profile cases, such as in recent stem cell research from Korea and Japan,5 6 to documented fraud by the drug industry, such as suppression of paroxetine safety data by GlaxoSmithKline.7 This last case included selective reporting or non-disclosure of critical information on safety as well as falsification of data. Similar charges were proved against the Indian generics manufacturer Ranbaxy, which was subsequently fined $500m (£290m; €370m) for data falsification after its global head of research and portfolio management turned whistleblower.8

The consequences of research fraud on human health and clinical practice can be huge. The damage to global vaccination …

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