The case of UNSW and an “anti-cancer superdrug” highlights issues with self-regulation in universities about what constitutes research misconduct
I’ve never seen a desktop like the one David Vaux deals with every day. Word docs, PDFs, spreadsheets and file types I can’t even recognise fill practically every inch of his laptop’s screen. As I sit next to him in the red-brick University House at the University of Melbourne, his cursor searches for a file among the clutter. He tells me, half-jokingly, to forget what I’m seeing – almost all of the material concerns investigations into research misconduct in Australian universities. Some are ongoing. Some are confidential.
The details of this case are complex and hotly disputed but illustrate why Australia needs an investigative body that is independent, expert and well-resourced. The system of institutions investigating themselves and acting on findings isn’t working and isn’t serving Australia well. The consequences of compromised research are too serious to be allowed to be dictated by concerns about funding and institutional reputation.
Vaux double-clicks a document on the desktop. An 80-page timeline expands across the screen. The first date, at the top of the page, is June 1995. It references a seminal paper by American scientists regarding a new type of therapeutic drug, known as DNAzymes. But for Vaux, this story starts 14 years later: August 25, 2009. It remains unfinished.
On that day, after spotting a duplicated image – a potential sign of data manipulation or fabrication – in a scientific paper authored by Khachigian and some of his students, Vaux sent an email to alert the vascular biologist to the issue. Most researchers would be immediately concerned by this kind of correspondence and eager to correct the scientific record. Khachigian’s response, Vaux says, was blasé.