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Research misconduct: 'alive and well'

Carl Heneghan
Last edited 12th January 2012

BMJ research misconduct survey results are released today online and were discussed at the BMJ meeting today on research misconduct.

Sara Schroter, senior researcher, at the BMJ sent an email to 9,036 authors and reviewers on the BMJ database of which 2,782 (31%) replied.

The results show that 13% have witnessed or have had first-hand knowledge of UK based scientists or doctors inappropriately adjusting, eluding altering or fabricating data during their research or for the purpose of publication. Six percent were aware of any cases of possible research misconduct at their institution, that in their view, have not been properly investigated.

Rewards and incentives to conduct research occur at the individual, institutional, national and company level, and misconduct occurS at all of these levels. In a previous survey of 3,247 US researchers, 16% admitted to altering design, methodology or results of their studies due to pressure of an external funding source. In addition, researchers involved with industry were more likely to report one or more of ten serious misbehaviours, to have engaged in misconduct and less likely to report financial conflicts.

As the BMJ survey shows research misconduct is 'alive and well'.

At the BMJ today research misconduct in the UK was discussed amongst academics, journal editors, policy makers and others.

Why does scientific fraud occur? Among the incidents of scientific fraud that David Goodstein has reviewed, three motives are more or less always present. In all the cases individuals were under career pressure, thought they knew what the result would be if they went to all the trouble of doing the work properly, and were in a field in which studies are not expected to be precisely reproducible.

A case of prolonged research fraud by Diederik Stapel in the Netherlands highlights the closed culture that aids such deception: simply misconduct is more likely when there is less scrutiny.

Peter Wilmhurst, in the morning, talked about the case of Eastell who was suspended from Sheffield University, whislt Professor Clara Gumpert of the Karolinska Institute talked about the case of Suchitra Holgersson: a Karolinska scientist who tried to mislead with false documents.

Iain Chalmers talked about the extensive problems of research that remains unpublished “50% of results remain unpublished.” As far back as 1990, in JAMA, Chalmers published on this exact topic:

“Substantial numbers of clinical trials are never reported in print, and among those that are, many are not reported in sufficient detail to enable judgments to be made about the validity of their results. Failure to publish an adequate account of a well-designed clinical trial is a form of scientific misconduct that can lead those caring for patients to make inappropriate treatment decisions.”

Fiona Godlee, editor of the BMJ, is instrumental in the BMJ's ongoing commitment to identifying and reporting on research misconduct. She spoke recently on the importance and relevance of this exact issue on the BBC: should all medical research be published?

Who can sort the problem out? Journals and their editors are not in a position to be the custodians of integrity. “Editors are not the individuals to investigate cases of research misconduct and the responsibility lies with the institution,” said Elizabeth Wager, chair of the committee on publication ethics. COPE as it is known is a forum for editors and publishers of peer-reviewed journals to address aspects of publication ethics. It also advises editors on what to do in cases of research and publication misconduct.

The morning meeting also discussed policies in the US, Sweden and Germany and their different approaches to research misconduct. It seems there is alot of it going on at the professorial level but also within Phds. Watch out for the BMJ survey coming this afternoon on research misconduct in the UK amongst clinical researchers. I bet it shows there is substantial misconduct going on. It seems to me the incentives are so great for academic to publish, or not in some cases, that it will be a hard problem to solve.

Thomas Kuhn, in 1962 wrote, scientific advancement is not evolutionary, but is a "series of peaceful interludes punctuated by intellectually violent revolutions", and in those revolutions "one conceptual world view is replaced by another". What he referred to as a 'paradigm shift.' A shift that is needed to force action and find solutions to research misconduct.

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