College Corruption At Its Worst
by Connie H. Deutsch
I remember my university days when our basketball team made the news for taking a bribe and throwing some basketball games. The team was ostracized; our university suffered a black eye. If my parents had known about it, they would have transferred me out of there in a heartbeat.
I can’t imagine what they would have done if they had heard about the corruption going on at Ohio State University. They probably would have taken the university to court for corrupting its innocent minors. And in those years, we were innocent.
But the situation is even more extensive than just OSU. It is only the tip of the iceberg. Corruption is so widespread in this country that it has infiltrated academia nationally.
It has been reported that “Federal officials found evidence that more than 100 researchers nationwide committed misconduct over the past decade, and experts are certain that universities and other institutions underreport that fraud, which comes at an untold cost to taxpayers.”
Ohio State University is an example of underreporting. The university’s investigation of research misconduct by a pharmacy professor failed at first to recognize his deception. In fact, they glossed over it because millions of dollars in grants were at stake.
The pharmacy department concluded that the “irregular” images in journal articles on the part of professor Terry Elton were caused by disorganization, not “intentional malfeasance” on his part.
A year later, the federal Office of Research Integrity urged the university to reconsider the case, using a PowerPoint presentation to highlight a pattern of falsified images in Elton’s publications over the past decade.
It could no longer be hidden. The university was forced to admit that Elton had intentionally misstated figures in several journal articles and in a grant application to the National Institutes of Health.
John Dahlberg, director of the federal office’s investigative oversight division, wrote “It is clear from the PowerPoint that Dr. Elton has a long-standing convention of reusing figures to represent both control and experimental conditions. It would also appear that he has copied, resized/stretched/shrunk, darkened and flipped images (horizontally and vertically) … to conceal similarities.”
He went on to say that “the images in question include those of proteins and microRNAs – small RNA molecules that regulate gene expression.”
Elton was forced to retract all six of his articles although a total of $1.6 million in grant money was associated with this project.
The handling of Elton’s case raises questions about whether research misconduct inquiries at universities are rigorous enough to root out wrongdoing.
Dr. Ivan Oransky, co-founder of the blog Retraction Watch and executive editor of Reuters Health, said, “The Elton case should spur university officials to examine what they can do to make sure such an oversight doesn’t happen. It behooves them to do as thorough a job as possible rather than find excuses for why they didn’t find it the first time . . . If they need to be nudged, why should tax dollars be going to places that have very little accountability?”
The Office of Research Integrity received an anonymous tip about Elton’s research in July 2010. After Elton was cleared by the pharmacy department’s first investigation, Dahlberg asked that anyone who had a personal or working relationship with Elton be removed from the panel investigating the matter. He also requested that OSU officials ensure that the committee had members with expertise in reading Western blots, a lab technique used to detect proteins that Elton had reportedly falsified.
In a staggering decision, OSU will allow Elton, who is tenured, to keep his $130,146 a year job. In deference to the sensitive issue of the fraud that he committed, he will be barred from serving as primary advisor to undergraduate or graduate students, postdoctoral trainees or lab technicians for three years, plus other sanctions.
Dr. Oransky said, “Elton’s misconduct is similar to or greater than that of other researchers who lost their jobs. It’s unusual for this level of misconduct to not be punished by either an early resignation or early retirement.”
Elton’s written response was, “Although I strongly disagree with the conclusions of the College of Pharmacy Investigation Committee Report and the severity of the proposed sanctions, I take full responsibility for the figure irregularities in manuscripts outlined by (the National Institutes of Health).”
The fact that research misconduct allegations against Terry Elton were not proven until the Office of Research Integrity requested a second investigation suggests that research misconduct policies at Ohio State University were misused as tools to fuel greed and corruption. After all, why kill the “cash cow” for the sake of honesty and justice if it meant giving up millions of dollars in funding from federal grants and other sources at Ohio State University?
So, Elton will keep his $130,146 a year job and he will still be teaching at OSU; he just won’t be allowed to do research for three years. And he’s complaining about that? If this had been anywhere other than in academia, he would be going to prison for fraud.
Roughly 7,100 university faculty, staff and graduate research associates take part in research at Ohio State, according to the university. I can’t imagine any of them not feeling tainted by the association of Elton’s fraudulent research articles or students wanting to take his classes. I can’t imagine NIH not being reluctant to fund more grants for OSU, especially with the perpetrator of this fraud still on staff.
To make matters worse, OSU officials disclosed two other investigations of research misconduct over the past five years. One began in 2009 but has not been completed by the Office on Research Integrity, a university spokesman said. The other probe, which began in 2011, involved a pharmacy graduate student who the university will not name. He falsified lab data, according to a university report.
And all this makes me wonder how any student who is interested in pharmacology and/or interested in pharmacology research would want to enroll in a university that puts fraudulent research ahead of the welfare of their students and the welfare of the taxpayers.