Data in schizophrenia studies faked, federal regulators say

Worker blames pressure from boss

UMB lab cleared of wrongdoing

August 28, 1999|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN STAFF

A former technician at a University of Maryland research institute faked more than a dozen test records in two government-funded studies of schizophrenia, regulators say.

The federal Office of Research Integrity reported this month that the technician, who worked for the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center in Catonsville, acknowledged making up data for tests she never administered. The data wound up in a table published last year in a scholarly journal.

Joann A. Boughman, vice president for academic affairs for the University of Maryland, Baltimore, said an internal investigation began last year when someone in a center laboratory noticed a discrepancy in research records. University officials confronted Susan Arenburg, 36, of Halethorpe, who had worked for several years for Dr. Robert W. Buchanan, chief of outpatient research.

Arenburg's job was to give psychological and cognitive tests to patients enrolled in studies. But in 13 to 15 cases, federal officials say, she made up the answers. Arenburg acknowledged faking some records, and a short time later she was fired.

Because the research was federally financed, the university notified the research integrity office of the misconduct.

The phony data were published in October in a table that was part of an American Journal of Psychiatry article reporting evidence of a biological link between schizophrenia and some subtle, abnormal eye movements.

After discovering the faked data, Buchanan stripped his study of all data gathered by Arenburg and recalculated the results. The new numbers did not alter the study's findings, he said yesterday. A corrected version of the table was published by the journal in April.

Buchanan declined to discuss the incident in depth. But Boughman said the scientist was under tremendous pressure during the investigation and its aftermath. "This man's reputation was on the line," she said.

"This was potentially devastating to him."

Under an agreement with federal officials, Arenburg is not to serve as an adviser or consultant to any federal medical panel over the next three years. Neither should she participate in federally funded medical research during that period without extraordinary supervision.

Arenburg said yesterday that she regrets her actions. But she blamed them in part on pressures she says she was put under by her boss. Though she did not deny faking data, she said she did so in fewer cases than reported. After leaving the center, she said, she found a job outside research. "I have put this horrible experience behind me," she said.

Boughman said the university found that the falsified research was not a result of "undue or unrealistic pressure" on workers in Buchanan's lab. Investigators did not find evidence of administrative or other problems that might have delayed discovery of the faked tests.

The falsified research was not related to studies at the Catonsville center in which scientists have triggered psychotic symptoms in schizophrenic patients by removing their medication or giving them a drug that induces hallucinations.

Last year, the federal Office for Protection from Research Risks ordered the center to more fully inform patients of the risks of these studies.

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