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Duke deans drop the ball on scientific misconduct

November 10, 2015

Former Duke University cancer researcher Anil Potti was found guilty of research misconduct yesterday by the federal Office of Research Integrity (ORI), after a multi-year investigation. You can read the story in Science, for example. His punishment is that he won’t do research without government-sponsored supervision for the next five years. Not exactly stiff.

This article also covers the ORI decision, and describes some of the people who suffered from poor cancer treatment because of his lies. Here’s an excerpt:

Shoffner, who had Stage 3 breast cancer, said she still has side effects from the wrong chemotherapy given to her in the Duke trial. Her joints were damaged, she said, and she suffered blood clots that prevent her from having knee surgery now. Of the eight patients who sued, Shoffner said, she is one of two survivors.

What’s interesting to me this morning is that both articles above mention the same reason for the initial investigation in his work. Namely, that he had padded his resume, pretending to be a Rhodes Scholar when he wasn’t. That fact was reported by a website called Cancer Letter in 2010.

But here’s the thing, back in 2008 a 3rd-year medical student named Bradford Perez sent the deans at Duke (according to Cancer Letter) a letter explaining that Potti’s lab was fabricating results. And for those of you who can read nerd, please go ahead and read his letter, it is extremely convincing. An excerpt:

Fifty-nine cell line samples with mRNA expression data from NCI-60 with associated radiation sensitivity were split in half to designate sensitive and resistant phenotypes. Then in developing the model, only those samples which fit the model best in cross validation were included. Over half of the original samples were removed. It is very possible that using these methods two samples with very little if any difference in radiation sensitivity could be in separate phenotypic categories. This was an incredibly biased approach which does little more than give the appearance of a successful cross validation.

Instead of taking up the matter seriously, the deans pressured Perez to keep quiet. And nothing more happened for two more years.

The good news: Bradford Perez seems to have gotten a perfectly good job.

The bad news: the deans at Duke suck. Unfortunately I don’t know exactly which deans and what their job titles are, but still: why are they not under investigation? What would deans have to do – or not do – to get in trouble? Is there any kind of accountability here?

  1. mathematrucker
    November 10, 2015 at 8:43 am

    The only Perez on that Cancer Letter page is named Edith. Dr. Bradford Perez evidently works at the Moffitt Cancer Center now:

    https://moffitt.org/providers/bradford-perez/

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  2. November 10, 2015 at 10:24 am

    So when can we expect the MOOC – “Potti Training for New Research Students – Alternative Guidelines”.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Billbo
    November 10, 2015 at 10:52 am

    If you are interested in following bad science, I highly recommend Retraction Watch:

    http://retractionwatch.com/

    It is disturbing how much scientific misconduct is out there.

    They have posts about Anil Potti going back to 2010:

    http://retractionwatch.com/2010/08/03/why-write-a-blog-about-retractions/

    This search finds several pages of posts that mention him (don’t forget to click “Older Posts”
    at bottom of page to see more about Potti):

    http://retractionwatch.com/?s=anil+potti

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  4. Fats Grobnik
    November 10, 2015 at 3:41 pm

    While it’s true that the official penalties aren’t exactly stiff, the taint they carry will follow Mr. Potti forever, affecting his future employment. It’s also fair to say that, given the current NIH funding situation, and the fact that most NIH reviewers will be entirely unforgiving of his many fraudulent acts, he’ll probably *never* get another NIH grant.

    I don’t know if that’s enough, but it’s about all the ORI can do. You’d need to involve medical boards and prosecutors for more.

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  5. November 11, 2015 at 11:56 am

    In social science it’s even worse. Work with known errors, fatal to its conclusions, never gets retracted in social science: Reinhart and Rogoff’s work is still published in the AER, despite its results arising from excel errors and an extremely questionable weighing scheme.

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  6. Danny Kugler
    November 23, 2015 at 11:53 pm

    On November 20th, I attended a very informative IBS ENAR webinar presented by Dr Kieth Baggerly titled “Reproducible Research: The Time is Now”. Dr Baggerly and his colleagues at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, independent of Bradford Perez, raised concerns regarding the Duke research due to their lack of being able to reproduce Anil Potti’s results. Dr Baggerly provided a great example of the need to advocate sponsors, e.g., NIH, and journals provide methods to validate reproducibility.

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