Investigation. Between 2018 and 2022, there are at least eight scientific publications in the field of cancer research bearing the authorship of Italian Health Minister Orazio Schillaci that show obvious anomalies.

Orazio Schillaci: Publish or perish, hoping that no one checks

There are serious questions hanging over the scientific publications of Italian Health Minister Orazio Schillaci, the former rector of Tor Vergata University called up by Giorgia Meloni as a guarantee of the high level of competence of her government team.

Between 2018 and 2022, there are at least eight scientific publications in the field of cancer research bearing the authorship of the minister that show obvious anomalies. Namely, the articles feature images of cells examined under an electron microscope which are “recycled” between different articles published in international scientific journals and used to illustrate completely different experiments from those for which they were originally obtained.

The duplication of images to illustrate experiments that were never performed is one of the most often-encountered forms of manipulation in proven cases of scientific fraud. However, it must be stressed that it is impossible at present to determine the extent of the minister’s direct involvement, if any, in these suspect publications.

Certainly, in his role as supervisor, he had the duty to oversee the correctness of the studies carried out by his research group – which also featured his own name as author. So he would do well to clarify the facts of the matter – if, that is, he is not too overwhelmed by his ministerial duties to find the time for it.

Truth be told, Schillaci has shown a remarkable talent for multitasking. Even while holding burdensome offices such as dean of the Faculty of Medicine, rector, president of the Tor Vergata Polyclinic Foundation and now Health Minister, Schillaci has never stopped leading his university laboratory.

The list of his publications in recent years speaks volumes: according to the Google Scholar database, he authored, together with his collaborators, as many as 44 scientific publications in 2019, the year he became rector. Then he put his name to another 40 research papers in 2020, 30 in 2021, 40 in 2022, and about 30 (so far) in 2023, the entirety of which he spent in government: this amounts to a research paper every nine days, including holidays and Councils of Ministers, for a total of more than 400 scientific publications in his enviable resume.

It does seem that running a university laboratory while busy with completely different things might make it difficult to keep an eye out for errors or manipulations in the research conducted by one’s collaborators. But the minister can hardly pass on responsibility in the suspicious cases in question: for five out of the eight articles, he claims to have been the “supervisor,” the “originator” and “validator” of the research, as well as taking part in their writing.

Four of the articles also list him as the corresponding author, generally the most experienced researcher on the team, who has the role of explaining the content of the research to colleagues or the media. In only two of the articles is the authors’ individual contribution to the research left unspecified.

These are not trivial studies: the Ministry of University and Research has just declared a research project related to the same topics as the “suspicious” studies to be “of national interest,” with funding to measure. The project is coordinated by Manuel Scimeca, one of the collaborators and co-authors of Schillaci’s research.

According to the rules of the scientific community, regardless of the particular role they play, someone who is listed as an author of a research paper assumes full responsibility for it, especially if he or she is the most senior researcher. It is a principle officially established by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, which brings together the leading international academic journals in the field: each author of a study is supposed to be “accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.”

This norm aims to hold accountable those who sign off on scientific research, perhaps without having actually contributed to it, as is often the case in university fiefdoms. According to a practice as damaging as it is widespread, the faculty members who hold the most power arrogate to themselves the right to put their name to every study produced by their research group, taking credit for it even without contributing.

This is not the only toxic aspect of the climate in many university laboratories. The “publish or perish” dogma also pushes young researchers, working under precarious contractual conditions, to seek shortcuts in order to pad their CVs and procure new funding.

For all these reasons, those who are leading a large and important research group must take responsibility for mistakes and cases of fraud committed by their collaborators. There is no shortage of examples, including Nobel laureates and academic superstars who specialized in wearing multiple hats: a few weeks ago, the highly respected neuroscientist and president of Stanford University Mark Tessier-Lavigne had to resign because of four manipulated research papers (with images being once again the culprit) put together by his team – probably without his knowledge – at the private company Genentech, where Tessier-Lavigne served as both research director and vice president. Commenting on his resignation, Science editor Holden Thorp denounced the tendency of many scientists to take up positions of high responsibility both in academia and in administration, politics or business.

According to Thorp, the overload of duties explains many of the failings becoming apparent in the scientific community nowadays. “No one wants their research productivity to stop growing,” he wrote, “and for a scientist, it’s hard to give up the research you love and that has come to define you. But a high-profile administrative position is difficult enough in itself.”

Accordingly, any top role requires one to make a clear choice between science and power. Perhaps it is time for Schillaci to make his own.

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