Both books are roughly 20 years old and deal with two different yet connected cases from 1980ies: the former book with the case of Thereza Imanishi-Kari and Nobelist David Baltimore, the latter book with the case of Robert Gallo. As it happened, Baltimore got the Nobel Prize for discovering the retroviruses, while Gallo almost got it for discovering the HIV retrovirus. Both books deal with the history of research fraud in USA, and what transpires is that back in the days, 30 years ago was the magic moment where a research integrity spark was extinguished before it started to burn properly.
In 1992, just when dishonest US scientists started to tremble that the nation was getting dead serious about research fraud, with nobody above the rules and with the first crowned heads about to roll, the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) was established at the US Department of Health and Human Service (HHS). As ORI lawyers have declared all evidence against Imanish-Kari and Gallo to be poppycock and acquitted them (and other fraudsters) in full, the message became clear:
All scientists are created equal, but some are more equal than the others.
And this is how biomedical research fraud exploded in USA. All which matters was to be valuable to your university, and you will be forever protected. Sure, academia tried to self-correct by shunning the worst offenders, but their jobs and public reputations remained safe. The pathetic cock-up with Imanishi-Kari and Gallo encouraged fraudsters that what they do is actually not fraud at all, but rather very creative maverick research style. And because USA is the undisputed and much admired science leader, the rest of the world learned and accepted same attitude. Welcome to the shitshow of today’s PubPeer.
The Baltimore Case
The Baltomore Case is a story of a very boring research fraud incident. The immunologist Imanishi-Kari was caught on having fabricated research data to defend an irreproducible Cell paper which she previously published together with the much senior scientist and Nobel prize winner, Baltimore, when both worked at MIT. Baltimore always stood to his coauthor, while constantly lashing out at her accusers and critics. When Imanishi-Kari was found guilty of research fraud after many years of investigation, Baltimore finally retracted the Weaver et al Cell 1986 paper, having previously published a fraudulent correction to it. But when the misconduct findings were overruled in a legal appeal and Imanishi-Kari was acquitted in full, Baltimore tried to have that paper de-retracted.
Imanishi-Kari’s data was flagged as unreliable soon after it was published in 1986 by her own colleague Margot O’Toole, who received help from the NIH academics and science fraud sleuths Walter Stewart and Ned Feder (who previously uncovered the John Darsee fraud). To sum up Kelves’ verdict: those whistleblowers are pathetic, stupid losers, enemies of science and reason, and Imanishi-Kari and her supporter Baltimore are their innocent victims. Unless Kelves wrote his book ironically, but I very much doubt it, his own articles elsewhere suggest otherwise. Kelves’ 20 year old book is still in print, affordably cheap, in its second edition and beloved by academics, science journalists and certified research integrity experts. Students are constantly encouraged to read it, in order to learn that fraud is not what they see with their own eyes in the lab, but what authorities say it is.
Kelves’ opus is also extremely difficult to read, in many instances boring or just annoying, being full of page-long irrelevant details while utterly confusing on important parts. I admit having flipped through a number of pages, especially towards the end, because listening to lawyers argue ad nauseam why evidence does not matter and why research fraud is actually the creative way to do science is not my cup of tea. Most confusingly, Kelves is completely unable to explain what the Weaver et al Cell 1986 paper was actually about (despite a long, detailed introductory chapter on just that), never mind which experimental results were allegedly falsified and how. I admit immunology is my weak point, but I am still a molecular biologist and was left confused. Is Kelves pretentiously incompetent, or is he blowing smoke into his readers’ eyes intentionally? I suspect both. The book rolls out all the clear-cut evidence of how exactly and why Imanishi-Kari falsified data, just to drown it all in page-long counter-views by her friends and lawyers who are presented as the better and utterly unbiased experts on science unlike those unconflicted scientists who found Imanishi-Kari guilty of research fraud.
Kelves book is written like a court record, reading it actually feels like being repeatedly hit on the head by a heavy court file. To this historian (now Yale professor of science history), only legal aspects matter. We all know that in lawsuits it is all about nitpicking, decoys and confusion, bamboozling the judges, and discrediting the other side, and when you succeed, the truth and justice are all yours. A historian takes here the court verdict as absolute truth, the evidence he himself has listed at lenght is decreed as non-existent because some lawyers say so. This is exactly how the book is written, you are not intended to actually read it in full, just to accept its verdict, that Baltimore is a victim saint and Imanishi-Kari is innocent of deliberate research fraud.
However, even to Kelves it must have been evident that Imanishi-Kari is data forger, so his defence of her was rather about sloppiness, or being coerced under pressure from her detractors to falsify data, in order to defend her perfectly trustworthy research results from criticism. So what when O’Toole complained of being unable to reproduce a key finding from the Cell paper, Imanishi-Kari ordered her to delete data points, and to use only the values which match the desired result. As Baltimore himself is quoted:
“all of our notebooks, and the notebooks of all of students and postdocs, [contain] individual experiments that show quite the opposite from the conclusions that are published“
“You can make up anything that you want in your notebooks, but you can’t call it fraud if it wasn’t published“- David Baltimore
Kelves managed to simultaneously claim Imanishi-Kari’s results in that Cell paper were both false and correct: False because research by her friends disproved it as allegedly innocent misinterpretation, and correct because Imanishi-Kari herself later published some more papers on same topic.
Imanishi-Kari got her tenure at Tufts after the acquittal, but a scientist she was burned and lost all credibility. Even Kelves’ book didn’t help. She still occasionally publishes research papers, her two most recent from 2019 appeared in Frontiers, which kind of fits. Kelves however fully achieved his main purpose in whitewashing Baltimore, who spent 10 years defending fraud, denying and twisting the evidence and bullying whistleblowers and critics. Baltimore is still a star, his views on the urgent need of human germline gene editing are apparently much sought for by peers and media.
Science Fictions: A Scientific Mystery, a Massive Cover-Up, and the Dark Legacy of Robert Gallo
The second book is the exact opposite in its tone and style, and I warmly recommend reading it. Only that Crewdson’s 2002 book is out of print (are you surprised?) and can only be bought used or from leftover stocks. Hurry up while it still exists.
Crewdson’s book is easily readable and engaging. The cancer researcher turned virologist Robert Gallo was a big star of NIH, and he almost got the 2008 Nobel Prize for the discovery of HIV and for the developing of an AIDS blood test. Almost, because thanks to intrepid investigators, Gallo and his subordinate Mikulas Popovic were exposed as thieves. In the 1980ies, the two gentlemen used the AIDS-causing virus (then known as LAV), provided to them by their French collaborators at the Institute Pasteur, to be the first to claim the discovery of the so-called HTLV3 retrovirus, which later was renamed to HIV. Gallo also patented a blood test based on the stolen LAV, which he monopolised for USA and marketed together with the company Abbott, getting filthily rich in the process. Crewdson explains that the Gallo-Abbott blood test was faulty, providing both false positive and false negatives, which, among other things, cost the lives of many haemophiliacs in USA who received HIV-infected blood. And yet Gallo, NIH and US government fought tooth and nail to keep the French competitor blood test out of the US market, and succeeded for several years, with full support from Ronald Reagan’s White House.
Reading Crewdson’s book reminded me of Paolo Macchiarini, a pathological liar just as Gallo. Both use the art of unashamed bullshittery as their main weapon, to silence critics and to get what they want, and Gallo can really talk like a machine gun, even now in his very old age. I however doubt that Gallo is physiologically able of saying anything true, and he also seems to be an abysmally bad (even if very successful) scientist. Gallo rose to fame by discovering HTLV1 in 1970ies, a lymphoma causing retrovirus originally found in Japan, and it is not clear how much of the discovery is Gallo’s own and how much of his Japanese colleagues. From there on, Gallo decided to prove that all cancers are virus-caused and set out to find more cancer causing genes, failing every time.
Just when he was to about to be disregarded as the bullshitter he is, the AIDS pandemic arrived. Gallo threw his Bethesda lab’s resources onto it, but failed to isolate the AIDS virus because he was looking for something resembling HTLV1. Yet HIV is a different kind of retrovirus, a lentivirus namely. Somehow however, the LAV virus isolated and grown from French AIDS patient was sent to Gallo by Institut Pasteur and ended in the hands of Popovic. The two Bethesda researchers renamed it into HTLV3 and used it to publish in 1984 no less than FOUR back-to-back papers in Science (eg, Popovic et al 1984), and to patent a blood test. When asked where they got their HTLV3 from, Gallo lied and lied and lied, saying one thing one day and another thing another day, while refusing to admit that his HTLV3 was actually Pasteur’s LAV. Popovic simply hid behind Gallo, and never shared the fraud evidence he had secured, well aware that if they both fall, he will fall the hardest, and sent back to socialist Czechoslovakia which he fled many years ago.
Otherwise, how to explain that the only reproducible scientific discovery Gallo ever made since HTLV1, was the HIV virus he stole from the Pasteur Institute, and the rest in between and ever since was just bullshit upon bullshit? If only Gallo just stole someone’s results “faithfully”, but no, he had to twist these stolen results into his own utterly false scientific theories on retroviruses, and he also used his immense academic power to bully and silence scientists whose real findings disagreed with his unreal fabulations. Gallo’s bullshit polluted the fields of HIV, virology and cancer research for years and decades, the damage he caused to advance his greed and his narcissistic ego cannot be calculated, neither in dollars nor in human lives. But he still has many admirers, who cried about his not getting the Nobel Prize in 2009, including a certain Giorgio Zauli in Italy.
Obviously neither Gallo nor Popovic were officially guilty of fraud, but everyone knew they were, even if there never was a single retraction to their names. Thus, Gallo was ordered to bugger off from NIH and Bethesda, as it happened he was offered his own institute by the University of Maryland, which he gladly accepted and took Popovic with him. The two gentleman are still there, Gallo is in fact quite active on Twitter and media, science journalists very much respect his expert opinions, for example on how to cure COVID-19.
Both affairs were uncovered and exposed as research misconduct by the same NIH investigator, Suzanne Hadley. She was the quasi-head of the ORI predecessor Office for Scientific Integrity (OSI, the official head was Jules Hallum, a man who did little), and she gathered the enormous mount of evidence to get Gallo, Popovic and Imanishi-Kari convicted of research misconduct. Hadley’s reward was that she was vilified and made powerful enemies, including the newly appointed NIH director Bernandine Healy (now deceased), who compared Hadley to “the Gestapo”. Hadley was pushed out of the misconduct investigations, sent away to some minor irrelevant desk job at NIH, the OSI successor ORI was created without her involvement. Both cases she worked on ended with total acquittal for the accused when all misconduct findings were overruled by the lawyers at the ORI appeal board. Hadley’s name was purged and extinguished, she has no Wikipedia site and the only remaining records of her are basically just Imanishi-Kari related news articles.
In the Crewdson book, Hadley is is celebrated for her dedication, intelligence and her fighting the most powerful people in science and politics while still achieving a lot. For Kelves, Hadley is a stupid incompetent woman who does not understand science. Same goes for Margot O’Toole, the brave postdoc in Imanishi-Kari’s lab who blew the whistle on her research fraud, became hated and unemployable, and still never gave up. Pretentious and scientifically ignorant Irishwoman who just kept making babies, this is basically how Kelves keeps painting O’Toole.
Baltimore’s private live is on the other hand completely off-limits for Kelves, which is a pity. When a star Nobelist so viciously defends some minor female ex-collaborator in very low academic rank for some many years, against all growing evidence of massive fraud, while attacking Congressman John Dingell and his parliamentary committee, alienating so many influential peers in the scientific community, even losing his job as president of Rockefeller University in the process, why is nobody wondering how close friends Baltimore and Imanishi-Kari really where (or still are)? Where everyone else will easily throw postdocs and junior collaborators under the bus and to the wolves, Baltimore risked everything, became a kind of pariah himself, to protect some foreign untenured woman he once published one paper with? We are all grown-ups here, folks.
As aside, here is Baltimore’s wife and bigwig scientist herself Alice Huang advising a postdoc whose new boss keeps peering down her shirt:
“As long as your adviser does not move on to other advances, I suggest you put up with it, with good humor if you can. Just make sure that he is listening to you and your ideas, taking in the results you are presenting, and taking your science seriously. His attention on your chest may be unwelcome, but you need his attention on your science and his best advice.“
Maybe the Baltimores should have kept their private lives out of public scientific matters?
Kelves book appears as if written by one of Baltimore’s lawyers. He postulates that because Imanishi-Kari was acquitted in full by HHS lawyers, she is a good scientist innocent of any research misconduct, and everyone who says otherwise is either incompetent or malicious. I do wonder if Kelves these days believes President Donald Trump to be innocent because his impeachment trial said so, and screw the submitted and suppressed evidence. And yet Kelves is not a lawyer, but a historian. In fact he was appointed, exactly because of his The Baltimore Case book, as professor for history of science and medicine at Yale, which by academic standards probably means Kelves is a much better science historian than anyone else.
Office of Research Integrity
But why did Imanishi-Kari and Popovic/Gallo win, with all charges dropped? All three were found guilty by research misconduct by the ORI predecessor at NIH, OSI, thanks to the titanic efforts of Hadley. But then, for reasons political and academic, Hadley was kicked out and OSI was moved outside of NIH to HHS and re-named to ORI. This is where the foundation for current US fraud culture was laid.
The new feature of ORI, distinguishing it from OSI, was that all its final findings of fraud are not final at all. There is namely a Departmental Appeals Board where those found guilty of research misconduct can appeal to, and where all evidence must be presented and defended anew. This time, not to scientific experts, but to government-appointed lawyers acting as judges, in a kind of court trial where whistleblowers and experts are cross-examined by the lawyers of the accused. At the same time, the accused can roll out their own (paid) experts and character witnesses, and their opinion is just as valid as that of the conflict-of-interest free ORI experts. In such a setting, it is no surprise that lawyers see no misconduct anywhere and people like Imanishi-Kari, Gallo’s partner Popovic or Healy’s Cleveland Clinic protege Rameshwar Sharma get acquitted in full (Gallo himself didn’t have to bother, because ORI dropped their own misconduct findings seeing how the appeal board lawyers acquitted Popovic despite much clearer evidence of fraud).
ORI’s appeal board clearly says: if no intent or motive for fraud can be proven, there is no fraud. As Imanishi-Kari’s lawyers convinced the appeal judges, the fact that you were caught on fraud actually proves that you are innocent of it because if you intended to commit research fraud, you would have staged it more elaborately and stealthily to avoid getting caught. And you certainly would not have employed a potential whistleblower like O’Toole in your lab. I am not exaggerating, this is exactly how Imanishi-Kari was acquitted. Also Popovic stole the LAV virus and lied in his publications utterly without intent, maybe while sleepwalking.
This is research fraud, straight from Baltimore lab: Alexander Hoffmann, Andre Levchenko, Martin L Scott, David Baltimore The Ikappa B-NF-kappa B Signaling Module: Temporal Control and Selective Gene Activation Science (2002) doi: 10.1126/science.1071914
Learned scholars like Kelves namely insist that scientific misconduct investigations must be handled like criminal court trials. But it makes no sense. Here my arguments.
- In criminal law, it is perfectly clear that murder or arson are crimes. The prosecutor generally does not have to convince the judges that setting someone’s house on fire and watch them burn might be illegal. Yet this is what scientific fraud appeals in the cases of Imanishi-Kari and Gallo basically were like, where legal experts followed the defendant’s lawyers’ arguments that fudging research data is not misconduct, just creative sloppiness or innocent ignorance.
- Because in criminal law the nature of the crime is not disputed, it is the personal responsibility of the accused which is the issue. Who set the fire, is the question, not whether the act of setting the fire to a building is really tantamount to arson, or maybe it’s just an honorary affiliation with a matchbox. In scientific misconduct hearings, the responsibility is ascertained by the authorship, the author’s name is on the paper or research grant. But then the lawyers say: but it means nothing, even authors’ stated contributions are meaningless (see my own lost appeal case), since there is no law governing that. That was the argument of Carlo Croce, in a civil libel case mind you. The libel lawsuit was unsuccessful for Croce, but then again, he was never found guilty of any research misconduct and guess why.
- There are no criminal or civil laws on research ethics and there can never be. One cannot regulate the scientific process with laws (aside of obvious financial issues like funds handling), only with binding guidelines. For example, assuming you say digitally manipulating an image in a figure is illegal, but how do you define when ethically acceptable contrast enhancement ends and disreputable selective contrast adjustment begins? When is ordering a “trainee” to repeat an experiment a good scientific practice to achieve reproducibility, and when is it cherry-picking to obtain the desired result, i.e. research misconduct? You will have to leave the legal argument there and start applying scientific ethics argument instead. This is not something where a lawyer can or wants to follow you.
- Lawyers do not understand science and the scientific method, their profession might be the least compatible with the scientific method. I know, I was in court myself, facing sentencing from judges who all felt like experts, even in English language which they only knew from school. In court, the argument will always go whether a fraudulent research practice was legal or not, instead of ethical. And of course, in absence of specific laws the science fraud will always be legal, especially where other guidelines were not clear or even absent. How can you expect a scientist to know that data cannot be fabricated in Photoshop if the journal never explicitly forbid that? Innocent!
- The one with most money will usually win in court. Money is always a big issue for ORI, but it was not an issue for Gallo or Baltimore, and they won. The academic bigwigs accused of fraud draw salaries of at least half a million a year, and that is only their “day job” at university, because the cash flow from their business activities as start-up founders, industry advisors and board members, court experts, private clinical practitioners or stock and real estate owners are easily several times higher than their already gigantic academic salaries. These folks can afford the best lawyers, and they can also buy the desirable media coverage, either by bribing or by threatening journalists.
But this is how ORI works. Now you know why the people they find guilty of research misconduct are usually some minor characters, in the rank of PhD student or postdoc. If a professor gets found guilty of fraud, it’s because their university decided to sack and/or to humiliate them. In this way, I see ORI as a kind of a professional Eid butcher, where research institutions bring their sacrificial sheep and cattle to be ritually slaughtered. The news of misconduct findings are then distributed to the poor (for example, via Retraction Watch) to teach them that research ethics are being taken seriously and everything is under control.
More fraud, “Contributed by David Baltimore“: Brian Zarnegar, Jeannie Q He, Gagik Oganesyan, Alexander Hoffmann, David Baltimore, Genhong Cheng Unique CD40-mediated biological program in B cell activation requires both type 1 and type 2 NF-kappaB activation pathways Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2004) doi: 10.1073/pnas.0402629101
In the end, ORI was in a way founded with the purpose to prevent influential fraudsters from being found guilty. The people ORI sometimes recruited were the opposite of Hadley: two former ORI top executives now work as paid advisors for research fraudsters. And this is why USA produced such gigantic amounts of fraud since 1992, and nobody cared. So far, at least.
Oh, and do read Crewdson’s book “Science Fictions” (please don’t confuse it with the identically named new book on research ethics by, here comes the irony, the eugenics enthusiast Stuart Ritchie). Unless you are a masochist, don’t bother with Kelves’ “The Baltimore Case”, here is his own summary anyway.
If you are interested to support my work, you can leave here a small tip of $5. Or several of small tips, just increase the amount as you like (2x=€10; 5x=€25). Your generous patronage of my journalism will be most appreciated!