Duke U Ready To Settle Whistleblower Case On Research Fraud

Nov 20, 2018

Credit Emery P. Dalesio / AP

Duke University has reached a settlement in a whistleblower lawsuit alleging it knew about fraudulent research in its labs and actively concealed the fraud from federal agencies responsible for doling out research funding.

The university received more than $200 million in research funding based on this fraudulent research.

The whistleblower is Joseph Thomas, a former Duke researcher and the accusations surround the work of Erin Potts-Kant, a former clinical research coordinator in the Pulmonary Division of Duke University Medical Center.

The U.S. Attorney General's office joined the suit, alleging Potts-Kant "engaged in systematic and near-universal research fraud," including manipulating or even manufacturing data. Potts-Kant co-authored 38 publications in scholarly journals which had been cited some 417 times in other scholarly articles, according to the lawsuit.

When the research fraud became known, Duke and its Office of Research Support "concealed this fraud from the Federal agencies responsible for its grant funding," according to the complaint.

The case was brought in federal court in the middle district of North Carolina with Judge Catherine Eagles presiding. Attorneys for the government and Duke told the judge they reached a settlement, though the details of that settlement were not yet made public. It's possible Duke would have to pay back federal research funds it received or pay other penalties, and Thomas could be in line for a payout as well for his role as a whistleblower.

Related: Spike In Retractions Highlights Problems In Research

A hearing has been scheduled for Dec. 7 for the judge to approve the settlement. A representative from Duke and the attorney representing Thomas both declined comment, citing the pending settlement.

The agreement was first reported by Science, a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. If the payout is sizeable – and if Thomas receives a financial reward – the watchdog Retraction Watch noted in the Science article that this could bring about more whistleblower lawsuits. If researchers see they can reap a financial reward for blowing the whistle on fraudulent research, it might spur them to do so.