The case for criminalizing scientific misconduct

Chris Said

In 2006, Sylvain Lesné published an influential Naturepaper showing how amyloid oligomers could cause Alzheimer’s disease. With over 2,300 citations, the study was the 4th most cited paper in Alzheimer’s basic research since 2006, helping spur up to $287 million of research into the oligomer hypothesis, according to the NIH.

Sixteen years later, Science reported that key images of the paper were faked, almost certainly by Lesné himself, and all co-authors except him have agreed to retract the paper. The oligomer hypothesis has failed every clinical trial.

Lesné’s alleged misconduct misled a field for over a decade. We don’t know how much it has delayed an eventual treatment for Alzheimer’s, and it was not the only paper supporting the oligomer hypothesis. But if it delayed a successful treatment by just 1 year, I estimate that it would have caused the loss of 36 million QALYs(Quality Adjusted Life Years), which is more than the QALYs lost by Americans in World War II. (See my notebook for an explanation.)

Lesné is not alone. This year we learned of rampant image manipulation at Harvard’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, including in multiple papers published by the institute’s CEO and COO. So far 6 papers have been retracted and 31 corrected. The 6 retracted papers alone have 1,400 citations and have surely polluted the field and slowed down progress. If they delayed a successful cancer drug by just 1 year, I estimate they would have caused the loss of 15 million QALYs, or twice the number of QALYs lost by Americans in World War I.