Dr. Zulfiqar Bhutta, Robert Harding Chair in global child health and policy and Co-Director of the Centre for Global Child Health at the Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto says in BMJ that criminal sanctions are necessary to deter growing research misconduct.

He says the fact that research fraud is common is no longer news, but a review by PubMed in 2012 found that 67% of research article retractions were "attributable to scientific misconduct, including fraud or suspected fraud". An article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday discussed the effort by NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins to mandate more rigor with the $30 billion each year that the National Institutes of Health gives out with little oversight.

 Bhutta says the consequences of research fraud on human health can be "huge" and that the damage to global vaccination coverage by, for example, Andrew Wakefield "has been incalculable". Wakefield, however, lives a free man, "raking in money from various support groups." Criminal proceedings after serious research fraud are rare with such practice being dealt with by institutions, he adds.

Add that to green NGOs such as Greenpeace and Union of Concerned Scientists, which promote an anti-science agenda that is harmful to everyone, yet have little pushback in the United States. Canada stripped Greenpeace of its tax exempt status because they have no "public benefit" to Canada and simply use politics to promote fear and doubt about science.

Some worry about the slippery slope and say it is difficult to know if researchers are incompetent or frauds or simply mistaken but Bhutta argues that that "deliberate fraud is often prevalent." And investigations are often expensive, costing between $116,160 and $2,192,620 per case.

Current measures are not enough, he says. "Although many perpetrators of research fraud never return to academic life; others may claw their way back to active research."

Bhutta concludes that although the costs of fraud are not known, "human, social and economic costs are likely considerable" and that "additional deterrence through punitive measures such as criminal proceedings should be added to the repertoire of measures available."

He concludes that because consequences can be huge, "it is time to regard such behavior in the same category as criminal fraud and deal with it accordingly."

Dr. Julian Crane from the Department of Medicine at the University of Otago in New Zealand, argues that criminalization would not have any deterrent effect and would undermine trust rather than improve it.

Crane says the former editor of The BMJ Richard Smith recently defined research misconduct as "the gentlemanly phrase for scientific fraud" and asks who "would not have fallen foul of this definition, so are we all fraudsters?"

Smith says research is "terrifyingly common" but only one in every 18,234 published abstracts are retracted because of real or suspected misconduct, which Crane adds "seems refreshingly small".

Crane appreciates that research misconduct does cause harm, but asks "would inviting the police to investigate more satisfactorily uncover misconduct or prevent harm?"

He believes that it lies with research organizations to reduce opportunities for misconduct and investigate appropriately. He concludes that criminalzsing research misconduct "is a sad, bad, even mad idea that will only undermine the trust that is an essential component of research and requires good governance not criminal investigators." 

Citation: Zulfiqar A Bhutta, Julian Crane, 'Should research fraud be a crime?' BMJ 2014; 349 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.g4532. Source: BMJ-British Medical Journal