Interviews for HIV study were fabricated

But none of the data from 3 UM employees was used in published report

December 25, 2003|By Julie Bell | Julie Bell,SUN STAFF

Three former University of Maryland employees engaged in scientific misconduct by fabricating 18 interviews with adolescents as part of a study on HIV risk reduction, the federal government has found.

The study, which involved 817 youths, was published in the January 2003 issue of the journal Pediatrics, but only after all suspect interviews were deleted from the results, said principal investigator Dr. Bonita F. Stanton, who now heads the pediatrics department at Wayne State University.

The journal said it has no plans to retract the article, and the University of Maryland, West Virginia University and Wayne State issued a statement saying they stand by the study and the integrity of the scientists involved.

None of the three who fabricated data was a researcher. Instead, they were among the part-time, temporary helpers hired from the Baltimore communities where the research was conducted - primarily public housing developments, Stanton said. They were assigned to visit research subjects in their homes with a computer and a tape recorder, which the research subjects used to document their responses to questions.

But in the summer of 2001, Stanton said, a University of Maryland research coordinator became suspicious when she recognized a voice on one of the tapes. It belonged to the daughter of one of the temporary employees.

The discovery led the university to temporarily halt the research, launch an investigation and notify the Office of Research Integrity, an arm of the Health and Human Services Department. The fabrications did not become public until this month, when the department published its findings in the Federal Register.

Those findings said 18 interviews had been fabricated. The university said in a statement that none of the data collected by the three was used in the published study.

The Office of Research Integrity is an arm of HHS that investigates fabrications and plagiarism in research sponsored by the U.S. Public Health Service, primarily the National Institutes of Health.

The HIV study, which was sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health, compared sexual risk habits of adolescents in two groups: one that participated in a single outside education program and another that combined the first program with another that involved their parents.

Researchers found that youths who had parental involvement reported lower rates of risky behavior.

Stanton said this week that she was grateful to the University of Maryland for its thorough investigation but also saddened by the incident.

All three former workers involved in the fabrication have agreed not to participate in any Public Health Service-sponsored research unless the institution employing them submits a plan for supervising them. The University of Maryland has no plans to do so, a spokeswoman said.

"These were low-level individuals: These were not Ph.D. scientists with 10 years of experience," said Chris B. Pascal, director of the Office of Research Integrity, explaining why the government took an approach he described as rehabilitative. "The subject was important, but the number of fabrications was relatively minor."

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