We just can’t trust that medical-industrial complex, can we? Last month I posted about big-pharma Merck planting paid corporate propaganda in faux-journals. Now the New York Times reports a medical researcher forged coauthor signatures and may have gotten bogus research paid for by Medtronic into a real journal.

An Army inquiry finds that Dr. Timothy R. Kuklo, former Army orthopedic surgeon, falsified data about the effectiveness of Infuse, a Medtronic bone-growth product used in grafting. Medtronic hired Kuklo as a consultant in 2006, after paying for $13,000 worth of Dr. Kuklo’s travel in the preceding five years. Kuklo made no mention of his relationship with Medtronic in the disputed article.

By the way, Kuklo left the Army in 2007 and moved into a $2.1 million house in St. Louis, where he now teaches at Washington University. (Er, makes that taught: he’s on official leave, and the only thing Washington University will say is that the leave will allow him to “focus on responding to queries about his research and consulting.”

Dr. Kuklo also salted the article with names of coauthors, fellow Army doctors who had no involvement with the paper. One of those doctors, Dr. Romney C. Andersen, caught wind of the article and blew the whistle on the monkey business. Andersen says Kuklo fabricated data. British publication The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, yanked the article in March. (Read more from Barry Meier and Duff Wilson, “Discredited Research Study Stuns an Ex-Army Doctor’s Colleagues,” New York Times, 2009.06.05.)

This incident demonstrates the imperfection of the peer-review process. Peer review rules even hindered the investigation of Kuklo’s fraud: NYT reports that when Dr. Andersen tried to get a look at reviews of the article given by an American journal that had rejected Kuklo’s work, that journal’s editor refused, saying reviews go only to the lead author and no one else, not even a supposed co-author.

There are signs that the peer-review process actually did its job in this case. NYT reports that the New England Journal of Medicine and the American Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery both appear to have rejected Kuklo’s paper, but it’s not clear whether they detected the fabrications or found other editorial weaknesses as sufficient basis for rejection. And it only took seven months for the duped British journal to catch the fraud, retract the article, and declare Dr. Kuklo persona non grata.

Yet the article still got published. Three sets of reviewers failed to alert the public to the attempted falsification. It took investigation by a serendipitously alerted researcher and the U.S. Army to ferret out the fraud and sound the proper alarm.

Open Access publishing wouldn’t stop Medtronic and other big players from using money to influence researchers to help sell their products. But it would put more eyes on research and perhaps speed the discovery of frauds like Dr. Kuklo’s.

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