Most people know that aspiring evil geniuses can do no better than Duke University, which offers an undergraduate major in the topic. And most people also know that for journalists, the most lurid temptations generally come from the dark world of public relations, where unlike actual journalism, a reliable paycheck can usually be guaranteed. But if you insist on hard evidence, you can hardly do better than this recent story, courtesy of the always-entertaining Retraction Watch.
Here's the background. Dr. Anil Potti was a Duke cancer researcher who claimed to have developed a test that could predict which lung cancer patients would benefit from chemotherapy. Outside researchers were skeptical, but Duke researchers launched a series of clinical trials based on Potti's work anyway. Those trials were stopped temporarily in 2009 when other researchers could not replicate Potti’s results, but after an internal investigation, the trials resumed. Over the next year or so, however, it became clear that Potti was a fraud. Journals such as the NEJM and Nature Medicine started retracting his articles, and it was discovered that Potti had falsely claimed he was a Rhodes Scholar on his CV. The clinical trials were stopped again. Potti resigned. And yesterday, a group of cancer patients and their families filed a lawsuit against Duke.
Many of the best, toughest stories on the Potti scandal came from Sarah Avery, a reporter for the Raleigh News and Observer. In fact, Avery was making Duke miserable. So how did Duke respond? They hired her, of course, and made her a media relations officer. She is now their spokesperson on the Potti case.