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Building a Data Lockbox

Potti case leads to new research rules.
June 4, 2012

In evaluating the university’s actions surrounding now-discredited research data published by former faculty member Anil Potti, Duke research officers admit the university made mistakes in handling the case—and they are taking steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Sally Kornbluth, vice dean for basic sciences in the School of Medicine, announced several new steps to improve data transparency and security at a February meeting of  the  Academic  Council. Among the changes will be revised information-technology processes to document whenever data collected in original research are altered.

“We want to see when changes are made and who makes the changes."

A key allegation in the ongoing investigation into Potti’s research is that data collected in several of his studies on cancer were altered for publication. Kornbluth said Duke’s investigation of Potti’s data was flawed because it examined only the statistical methodology applied to the data, not their origin.

The new measures create a “data lock- box,” Kornbluth said. “We want to see when changes are made and who makes the changes. Had that been in place in this case, the discrepancy in [Potti’s] data would have been revealed earlier.”

Kornbluth said there was “a dire need” in many research labs for quantitative expertise to review data. As a result, Duke has taken steps to embed biostatisticians in clinical research groups. Already this change has attracted attention from other research institutions looking to reduce errors in data analysis.

It’s impossible to develop a system that will completely eliminate academic fraud if a researcher is in- tent on misconduct, said Kornbluth, “But this case highlighted that we can take a hard look at the infrastructure and the culture around re- search to reduce it.”

“We want people to feel free to raise concerns when they see research problems,” she said. “This is through a combination of creating places to raise concerns anonymously and to have leadership throughout the institution where people feel comfortable to raise their hands and speak out."