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Duke University settles research misconduct lawsuit for $112.5 million

Duke University will pay $112.5 million to the U.S. government to settle a lawsuit brought by a former employee who alleged that the university included falsified data in applications and reports for federal grants worth nearly $200 million. The university will also take several steps “to improve the quality and integrity of research conducted on campus,” including the creation of a new advisory panel that will provide recommendations to the president, the Durham, North Carolina, institution said in a statement released today.

Late last year, ScienceInsider reported that Duke and federal prosecutors had moved to settle the case, but no details were available. It had drawn close attention from other universities, in large part because it involved a federal whistleblower law, the False Claims Act, that has rarely been used to address scientific misconduct. Under the law, Duke biologist Joseph Thomas, who filed the lawsuit in 2014, could receive as much as 30% of any settlement reached between the United States and the university. (RetractionWatch has reported Thomas will receive $33.8 million.)

Thomas alleged that Duke biologist Erin Potts-Kant—a co-author on numerous papers that are now retracted—included fraudulent data in 60 grant reports and funding applications to U.S. agencies. “Duke discovered the possible research misconduct in 2013 after [Potts-Kant] was fired for embezzling money from the university, which also occurred over the same period,” the university noted in a statement released today. Potts-Kants “eventually pled guilty to two counts of forgery and paid restitution to Duke.”

“This settlement, which results primarily from willful misconduct that took place in one laboratory, but which affected the work of many more researchers, should not diminish the life-changing and life-saving work that takes place at every day at Duke,” said Duke University President Vincent Price in the statement. “Our difficulties in ferreting out and ending such misconduct remind us that important work remains to be done.”

Duke’s new Advisory Panel on Research Integrity and Excellence, to be chaired by pediatric microbiologist and former research dean of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, Ann Arvin, will examine ways of “improving the structure and function of research administration, with a focus on promoting research integrity,” the statement says. It is expected to provide its recommendations to Price by 30 June.