A backlog of research fraud cases, a number of which involve university scientists, has been built up by the General Medical Council.
Delays of up to two years are being experienced between the presentation of evidence and a formal disciplinary committee hearing. The GMC is running parallel hearings in a bid to reduce an overall glut of misconduct cases, the majority of which are unrelated to research fraud.
However, it is anticipated this accelerated pace will have to be maintained until the end of 2001 at the earliest before the backlog is cleared.
In the meantime, medical scientists who may have acted inappropriately are continuing to work unrestricted.
Many cases of research fraud involve the faking of drug trial results or the exploitation of patients who may not know they are being experimented on, or might have been subjected to inappropriate treatment such as excessive extraction of blood.
GMC disciplinary committees, quasi-judicial bodies made up of doctors and lay representatives, conduct hearings into alleged incidents and can strike medical practitioners off the register if a case is proven beyond reasonable doubt.
The system works well, according to Frank Wells, co-founder of research fraud investigators MedicoLegal Investigations, but concern over the backlog has prompted him to contact the GMC's president this month.
"I have no problems with the procedure but it is beyond me why there is this delay," he said.
Of the 12 cases that Medico
Legal has in the pipeline, two that involve academics are being
considered by the GMC,
including one that has been waiting for a resolution for two years.
Three further cases with university involvement are now being investigated by the company.
A GMC spokesman said steps were being taken to reduce the backlog, which was the result of an increased workload and the complex nature of recent cases - the hearings into the Bristol Royal Infirmary tragedy took eight months.
"Research fraud is something we take very seriously but our priority has to be patient safety, and our resources, both in terms of money and manpower, are not unlimited," he said.