A University of Minnesota student reporter was caught fabricating quotes for news articles last week. About the same time, a U researcher was caught forging a federal document. The key difference between the two cases: the Minnesota Daily fired its writer, but the faculty member will not be disciplined.
Psychologist Ken Winters needed to get a move on with a new study on teens who take illegal drugs, but there was a hold up. The National Institute on Drug Abuse had yet to send him a “certificate of confidentially,” a written promise that if any of his research subjects ever got pinched for illegal behavior, he wouldn’t have to snitch on them even if he got subpoenaed. Winters got tired of waiting.
So he forged that certificate, signed it in the name of NIDA officials, and submitted it to the university review board that had the power to green light his study.
The U declined to explain how Winters got caught, but Fox 9 reports that his staff had suspicions that the document wasn’t real. They confronted Winters about it, and the psychologist fessed up.
“Patient safety was never compromised,” the U said in a statement. “The study in question was never started, and furthermore had not been reviewed or approved at the time the issue was discovered. There has been no threat to the safety of patients or the important scientific research at that is going on at the university to search for new treatments and cures.”
Winters will not be fired, but he is voluntarily retiring at the end of July. For critics of the U’s reluctance to hold researchers responsible for their mistakes, the situation smells a lot like its handling of Dr. Stephen Olson, another faculty member whose actions brought international censure of the psychiatry department.
Olson is notorious for recruiting one of his own schizophrenia patients, Dan Markingson, for an anti-psychotic drug study in 2003. Markingson killed himself six months in, after repeated pleas from his mother to release him from the program. The U stonewalled the Markingson family’s attempts to learn what really happened to Dan for about 11 years after his death, denying responsibility until last winter, when external investigators looked into the case.
Another human research subject, Robert Huber, complained that Olson coerced him into a separate drug study that sent him to the ER at least twice with severe stomach pain. It later came out that Olson kept Huber on the experimental medication Bifeprunox even after the FDA rejected it for human consumption.
Through it all, Olson has kept his job at the U, and he continues to treat patients.
The University insists that Winters’ recent failure to protect his study subjects was a one-time lapse in judgement. A spokesman says that University investigators reviewed the documents Winters had filed in the past and decided that they looked legitimate.
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