Researcher Faked AIDS Data

November 28, 2007

A former University of Washington AIDS researcher committed scientific misconduct by altering images and fabricating data, a UW investigation found. Investigators recommended that Scott J. Brodie be banned from future employment at the university. All his research is now “viewed with suspicion” and subject to independent verification, according to a UW Investigation Committee Report.

by Nick Perry and Carol M. Ostrom
The Seattle Times

“Accepted scientific practices do not allow a scientist to falsely label an image as suits his or her fancy simply because such work is conducted in the scientist’s lab; to do so is instead a gross deviation of accepted scientific practices,” the investigators wrote.

Investigators found that Brodie falsified data in 15 instances — in published and unpublished journal articles, and grant proposals. The research in question included cellular responses to the HIV virus.

The 16-month investigation of Brodie was unusual and disheartening, said Denny Liggitt, chairman of the UW’s Department of Comparative Medicine and one of the three investigators who reviewed Brodie’s work.

Not only did it cast doubt on Brodie’s own work, but it also created problems for many other researchers who relied on his data, Liggitt said.

“The problem with things like this is that people build on someone else’s knowledge. It wastes money, it wastes time and it can lead science in a wrong direction,” Liggitt said. “Even the smallest misguidance can cripple a very large investigation.”

The 2003 report on Brodie, a former research assistant professor at the UW, was released Tuesday, after The Seattle Times last week won a case in King County Superior Court involving the release of the documents.

The Times in January requested all findings of academic misconduct at the UW, dating back five years. Under the pseudonym “John Doe,” Brodie filed a lawsuit against both the UW and The Times seeking to halt release of his records.

Brodie is now living and working on the East Coast. His Seattle-based attorney couldn’t be reached for comment late Tuesday.

In denying Brodie’s request for a preliminary injunction stopping release of the records, Judge William Downing said that because a “thorough investigation” found a public employee had engaged in research misconduct, “the public certainly has a legitimate interest in knowing that outcome, the underlying facts and the process by which they were found.”

The information was released under the state’s Public Disclosure Act, which acknowledges the public’s interest in open government by allowing access to certain records.

Brodie graduated from the UW in 1982 and got a doctorate in veterinary medicine from Washington State University in 1989. He later got a doctorate in infectious diseases from Colorado State University and was briefly an instructor at Harvard University.

He was recruited to the UW in 1996 to direct the retrovirus laboratory of Dr. Lawrence Corey, head of the UW’s virology division in the Department of Laboratory Medicine, Brodie told investigators.

Liggitt said the investigation began when a rival researcher, who was reviewing a paper Brodie submitted for publication, noticed some anomalies and notified the federal Office of Research Integrity, which, in turn, notified the UW in August 2002.

Investigation documents describe an unusual “sequestration” process that followed the next month. A team of doctors and security personnel confiscated nine computer hard drives from Brodie’s lab, as well as computer disks, lab notes and office files. Two doctors went to Brodie’s home and took away his home computer.

In December 2002, Brodie was ordered to work at home. The keys to his lab and his swipe card were confiscated. The next month, with all the evidence removed to other “secure locations” at the UW, Brodie was allowed back on campus. Brodie resigned in June 2003, and the investigation concluded in December of that year.

“It was a very traumatic investigation to be involved with,” Liggitt said. “We got to look at the underbelly of science.”

Liggitt said the investigators wanted to be extremely thorough to give Brodie the benefit of the doubt. But the more they looked into the case, the more problems they found. It became clear that Brodie had been increasingly manipulating computer images and falsifying data as time went by, Liggitt said, though it was hard to detect.

The UW’s Investigation Committee Report concluded that Brodie had committed scientific misconduct in many ways, including falsifying a figure in a paper submitted for publication. In a series of increasingly sharp rebukes, the investigators found that “Dr. Brodie falsified this figure and also that he did so knowingly and purposefully. Honest error was not involved.”

The investigators said Brodie deliberately manipulated an image of a single cell into “two distinct images presented as different types of cells” in order to make a point in a paper.

Even if the false information is presented in “good faith belief that the work could be created if attempted,” it’s wrong to do that, they said. In one case, the false information involved work submitted to the journal Science. “Science is a journal devoted to the practice of science, not science fiction,” the investigators wrote.

Corey said even though Brodie used faulty methods, his conclusions were found to be correct by other scientists — at least in the paper that spurred the investigation. That paper found the HIV virus continues to replicate in certain cells, even in people taking potent antiretrovirals. “Did he set back crucial research? The answer is no,” Corey said.

In written responses and interviews with the investigators, Brodie at times denied the allegations, at other times claimed images were “inadvertently mislabeled,” and suggested lab technicians could have been responsible for mistakes.

During one meeting, he said some primary source data had disappeared and might have been lost during a move between buildings.

The investigators, however, said they found Brodie’s responses “disingenuous” and “damning,” and noted that “publishing false scientific information in the public record is material because it harms the progress of science.”

They noted that none of the evidence implicated any of Brodie’s colleagues “in his acts of scientific misconduct.”

The investigators concluded that because Brodie is no longer employed at the UW, no immediate employment action was required — only that he “be banned from any future employment or contractual relationship with the UW,” the report said.

The UW turned over its results to federal investigators, who have not yet issued any findings.

In the past five years, the UW has launched two far-reaching investigations into academic misconduct, one of which is the Brodie case. No information is available on the second case, which remains under investigation.

In other, smaller investigations, the UW found problems in the work of at least three other researchers but didn’t conclude that those researchers had deliberately falsified data.

UW spokesman Norm Arkans said incidents of academic misconduct are extremely rare but are taken seriously when they arise, as the extensive investigation of Brodie shows.

Liggitt said scientific-journal editors have become increasingly concerned about the ease with which images can be manipulated through computer programs such as Photoshop. He said an image can often impress a reviewer or make a point that a lot of narrative cannot — and the old adage that an image is worth a thousand words rings true.

He said medical research and HIV research in particular is highly competitive, with the National Institutes of Health making cutbacks and many researchers competing for limited funding. Getting published can help bolster a researcher’s push to land the next grant, he added.

“It’s ugly out there,” Liggitt said. “There are a lot more desperate people because of the cutbacks.”