In 2013, Duke University biologist Erin Potts-Kant was arrested on embezzlement charges, and was later found to have included data the university considered "unreliable" in some 15 papers. Now, according to a joint report by ScienceInsider and Retraction Watch, a US district court has unsealed a lawsuit filed against Duke by a whistleblower accusing Potts-Kant, her former supervisor, and the school of using fraudulent data in projects involving 60 grants from the government worth about $200 million.
If the suit is successful, the article says, Duke could be forced to return up to three times any amount of money that's deemed to have been used in any fraudulent activity. The suit could also result in a multimillion-dollar payout to the whistleblower.
The Duke case "should scare all [academic] institutions around the country," attorney Joel Androphy of Berg & Androphy tells ScienceInsider and Retraction Watch. Very few whistleblower cases have targeted research universities, but if this one is successful, it could open the door for more, Androphy adds.
The whistleblower, a former colleague of Potts-Kant, says her boss and others at Duke knew full well that there were obvious problems with her work. "For example, she spent far less time completing a research task than required by an equally experienced researcher," the article says. "And at least one outsider had raised questions about her data at a scientific meeting. But the university withheld the scope of what it knew from federal funding agencies as it filed reports on existing grants and applied for new ones, the lawsuit alleges."
However, the case may not be easy to prove, another lawyer tells ScienceInsider and Retraction Watch. The number of retractions related to this case is high, but it might be difficult to show that it was specifically the fraudulent data that helped the university win those grants. The article quotes attorney Torrey Young of Foley & Lardner LLP in Boston who says, "You can have research misconduct without having a false claim."