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Academic Fraud Is No Longer a Family Affair

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A long and distinguished medical career was publicly blighted last month after one of Harvard’s most honored professors, Dr. Shervert Frazier, was accused of including plagiarized material in four articles published more than a decade ago. Confronted, Frazier resigned from a professorship in psychiatry at Harvard medical school and as head of a Harvard-affiliated teaching hospital. A former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, the leading federal agency in the field, Frazier, at age 67, was close to retirement. The “borrowed” writings didn’t affect patient care or scientific knowledge. In similar circumstances in past years, violators of scholarly propriety were allowed to go quietly. But Frazier’s disgrace was announced by Harvard and echoed on leading front pages. Why?

The answer is that after long being complacently perceived as a trivial--perhaps even a non-existent--problem, academic sinning has been raised to public attention by several grimy cases of scientific fraud and deceit. And Congress, which pays the bills for most of the university-based research, has been growing skeptical of assurances that the misdeeds are rare aberrations that get caught in the ordinary checks and balances of scientific research.

The issue is especially sensitive at Harvard, where a rising young researcher, Dr. John Darsee, was revealed in 1981 to have fabricated data on numerous research papers in cardiology. Investigations sponsored by Harvard dismissed the matter as a solo case of misguided ambition. But an investigation commissioned by the National Institutes of Health, which financed Darsee’s research, concluded that the Harvard environment pushed fiercely for productivity in the laboratory while providing little or no supervision. Since Harvard is the peak of American academic eminence, the case still reverberates in academic circles as an embarrassing whitewash attempt that nearly succeeded.

Against that background, more recent cases have drawn wide attention. One culminated this fall in the first federal criminal conviction of a scientist charged with fabricating research data, in this instance on tranquilizers for severely retarded children. While Harvard’s Darsee simply resigned and disappeared, the recent culprit, Dr. Stephen Breuning, drew a 60-day work-release sentence and five years’ probation, and was ordered to make restitution of $11,000 that he received while he was a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh.

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Two years ago an investigation at the University of San Diego confirmed that a young superstar there, Dr. Robert Slutsky, had simply made up the data on scores of published research papers. Raising the publish-or-perish fever to new heights, Slutsky poured out papers at the phenomenal rate of one every 10 days for several months. Though that pace was impossible for legitimate research, it nonetheless earned the high regard of his mentors.

When the last Congress’ clock ran out, several members influential in federal support of science were drafting legislation aimed at cracking down on the fraudulent use of federal research grants by establishing a special enforcement arm in the office of the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services. The move generated a horrified reaction in scientific circles, where the fraud issue is regarded as overblown by alarmists and easily misunderstood by outsiders. The members of Congress say that they’ll introduce the legislation in the next session.

The misfortune of Harvard’s Frazier was that his derelictions were revealed at a time when the issue of scientific fraud has become politically volatile. It is a safe assumption that in quieter times the episode would have remained within the Harvard family.


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