Scientific Fraud at London University

The University of London (UL) is a complex, federal institution including University College London (UCL) the LSE, King’s College London and the London Business School. The University is the world’s oldest provider of academic awards through distance and flexible learning, dating back to 1858. The UL website proudly announces that it: “has been shortlisted for the International Impact Award at the 2018 Times Higher Education Awards, known as the ‘Oscars’ for higher education.

The academic context of an institution of the size and complexity of the UL is one of intense external and internal competition. These colleges compete fiercely for resources on a national and international stage. Many of them do exceedingly well. They are obsessed by their positions in various public league tables.  For example, the Times Higher Education (2018) World University Rankings for 2019 place Imperial College, UCL, LSE and King’s at 9th, 14th, 26th and 38th places respectively in a table of 1250 universities. These rankings matter and the only game in town is to move up the table. Oxford and Cambridge are in first and second place, with Stanford, MIT, CalTech and the Ivy League universities not far behind.

Within UL itself, there is intense rivalry between the member colleges,  the Medical Schools, the Schools and departments within those colleges, research groups and units within departments, and finally, between individual academics. The  white heat of competition needs to be directly observed or experienced to be believed. Academics at every level are under huge and intense pressure to obtain research funding and to publish peer-reviewed papers in high-impact journals to raise the perceived status of their schools and departments, and to secure funding in the form of research grants and to do all of these things as quickly as possible. As a consequence, simply to stay in the race, each and every method that produces the most outstanding results will be tested and tried. Unfortunately, from time to time, this inevitably means that academics resort to fraudulent practices.

This always does harm; it harms patients, biomedicine and science.  It also harms the reputations of the individuals concerned and their institutions. For this reason, information about scientific misconduct seldom finds its way into public arenas, yet it is a notable part of ‘behind the scenes’ academic history. In “Scientific misconduct and the myth of self-correction in science”, Stroebe, Postmes and Spears (2012) discuss 40 cases of fraud that occurred between 1974 and 2012. The majority occurred in Biomedicine and the only two UK cases were at UL. Academic institutions prefer to keep scientific fraud committed by their employees behind closed doors. Then with the inevitable leaks, news of ‘scandals’ creates headlines in the mainstream media. This means that academic responses  to fraud are driven by scandals. To quote Richard Smith (2006): “They accumulate to a point where the scientific community can no longer ignore them and `something has to be done’. Usually this process is excruciatingly slow.”

There have been several examples of proven scientific misconduct involving fabrication and fraud at several esteemed colleges within London University. London University has been blighted with a high proportion of ‘celebrity’ fraud cases, a few of which are summarised below.

UNIVERSITY COLLEGE LONDON – BURT SCANDAL

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Sir Cyril Burt at University College London claimed a child’s intelligence is mainly inherited and social circumstances play only a minor role. Burt was a eugenicist and he fabricated data in a manner that suggested the genetic theories of intelligence were confirmed.   Burt’s research formed the basis of education policy from the 1920s until Burt died in 1971. Soon afterwards evidence of fraud began to seep out, as if from a leaky bucket.

Notable exposures were by Leon Kamin (1974) in his book, The science and politics of IQ and Oliver Gillie (1976, October 24) who claimed that “Crucial data was faked by eminent psychologist” in the Sunday Times 

Burt was alleged to have invented results, assistants and authors to fit his theory that intelligence has primarily a genetic basis.  It is widely accepted today that Burt was a fraudster although he still has defenders.

ROYAL FREE HOSPITAL – WAKEFIELD SCANDAL

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A fraudulent article in The Lancet falsely linked the MMR vaccine to autism. The publicity about this scared large numbers of parents.  Dr. Andrew J Wakefield and a team (1998) at the Royal Free Hospital and School of Medicine, UL,  falsified their findings. This resulted in a substantial drop in vaccinations causing unnecessary deaths among thousands of unprotected children (e.g., Braunstein, 2012; Deere, 2012). In spite of significant public and scientific concerns, the Wakefield paper was not retracted until February 2010,  12 years after the original publication.  The paper received 1330 citations in the 12-year period prior to retraction and 1260 citations since the retraction. The false evidence that MMR vaccine causes autism is widely cited to the present day, and the paper forms the backbone of an international anti-vaxxing campaign which Wakefield leads from Austin, Texas (Glenza, 2018).

ST GEORGE’S MEDICAL SCHOOL – PEARCE SCANDAL

Dr. Malcolm Pearce of St George’s Medical School, LU, claimed that a 29-year-old woman had given birth to a healthy baby after he had successfully relocated a five-week-old ectopic foetus into her womb (Pearce et al., 1994).  The report excited worldwide interest and hope to thousands of women who are prone to pregnancies that start outside the uterus and end in miscarriage. However, Dr Pearce’s patient records had been tampered with, colleagues knew nothing of this astonishing procedure, and the mother could not be tracked down. Pearce had falsified his evidence. The GMC ruled that fraud had happened and struck off his name from the register. His fraud actually ended two careers.

BIRKBECK COLLEGE AND UCL – LATCHMAN SCANDAL

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Turner (2018) describes a “a major research scandal, after an inquiry found that scientific papers were doctored over an eleven year period.” Professor David Latchman, Master of Birkbeck College and one of the country’s top geneticists, was accused of “recklessness” by allowing research fraud to take place at UCL’s Institute of Child Health. The report states that UCL launched a formal investigation after a whistleblower alleged fraud in dozens papers published by the Institute.

It is alleged that a panel of experts  found that two scientists, Dr Anastasis Stephanou and Dr Tiziano Scarabelli, were guilty of research misconduct by manipulating images in seven published papers. Professor Latchman, a former Dean of the Institute, is cited as an author on all seven of the papers.  In a paper published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, the panel said there was “clear evidence” of cloning, where parts of an image were copied and pasted elsewhere in the same image. Elsewhere in the publications, an image from a paper published a decade earlier had also allegedly been used.

KING’S COLLEGE COLLEGE – PETERS AND BANERJEE SCANDAL

Another college in UL tainted by fraud is King’s College. According to the King’s College’s website (https://www.kcl.ac.uk/lsm/about/history/index.aspx) the College was founded in 1829 as a university college “in the tradition of the Church of England”. The first King’s Professor to gain prominence as a fraudster was Professor Timothy Peters, professor of clinical biochemistry at King’s College School of Medicine and Dentistry, who was found guilty of serious professional misconduct in 2001. He was given a severe reprimand by the General Medical Council (GMC) for failing to take action over falsified research published by a junior doctor he was supervising (Dyer, 2001).

Professor Peters had been the research supervisor of Dr Anjan Banerjee, a junior doctor at King’s College Hospital between 1988 and 1991. Dr Banerjee, aged 41, was suspended from practice by the GMC for 12 months in December 2000 for publishing fraudulent research (BMJ 2000;321:1429). When the GMC suspended him, he had already been suspended from his job as consultant surgeon at the Royal Halifax Infirmary as a result of unconnected allegations concerning financial fraud, and he resigned after the GMC suspension. In spite of everything, Dr Banerjee was awarded fellowships at three Royal Colleges and also the MBE!  Nice work, if you can get it.

UNIVERSITY COLLEGE LONDON – AHLUWALIA  SCANDAL

The Ahluwalia scandal is described in detail by Dr Geoff. It involved multiple acts of fraud. Jatinder Ahluwalia was obviously a very shrewd operator. In spite of getting found out on more than one occasion, Ahluwalia was able to gain employment in several prestigious institutions including Cambridge University,  Imperial College London, UCL and the University of East London.

These cases indicate the relative ease with which the academic fraudster can accomplish fame and fortune at some of the most prestigious institutions in the land.  The extremely poor record of the authorities at colleges in London University in discovering and calling out fraud is something to behold.

To be continued…

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