“A lack of transparency in research results in mistrust and insecurity in science.”
In typical Thursday fashion I was thinking I had more important things to do than to attend the weekly seminar series, with fresh data waiting to be analysed, and with the seminar room being particularly cold it was the last thing I wanted to do. As usual however, I dragged myself away from my desk and hoped for something interesting. I spent the next hour on the edge of my seat, shocked and horrified as I was shown case after case of intentional scientific fraud, and left wondering how anyone could falsify data so brazenly, and what can we do to protect scientific integrity.
This was not the first time I had heard people speak on this subject, but none the less hearing these stories of blatant deceit have never ceased to amaze me. Even with the ever increasing concerns about data reproducibility, when I hear that experiments were not reproducible or that there are errors in the data I immediately think that these are cases of mistakes, carelessness, accidental bias or observer bias, not blatant lying. The concept of a scientist feeling entitled to fake their results, especially in medical research where false data can lead to a incredible waste of time, money and resources, is a concept as bizarre as it is dangerous. We as scientists spend most of our careers in the pursuit of knowledge, endeavoring to understand disease and improve patient outcomes, yet here there are people polluting the pool of knowledge, not accidentally but intentionally for simple personal gain. This can delay discoveries that could save lives and potentially put people at risk. Each journal retraction is estimated to cost an average of AUD$500,000 sourced from taxpayers and charities, not including the time, money and resources other researches waste trying to reproduce the results or expand on falsified data.
In 2016, an Australian neuroscientist received a 2 year suspended sentence for fabricating a drug trial for medication to treat Parkinson's disease that was published in 2011. Though he faced criminal proceedings he was only banned from receiving government funding for 3 years.
I think we all like to believe that these instances are one in a million cases or just a few bad apples but sadly this is not the case. In recent years the number of papers that have been retracted around the globe has steadily increased, with most being attributed to research misconduct rather than accidental errors. The ugly truth is that scientific culture often incentivises this behaviour; with so much emphasis placed on publishing in the best journal and to have the highest output, there are few who don’t feel the constant pressure to publish. Though exact numbers are difficult to determine due to the secrecy and lack of transparency of these cases, it is estimated that in Australia alone there are 30 cases per year of serious misconduct. Unfortunately, the problem is likely far more widespread as these estimates are based on incidences of blatant duplication, doctoring and falsification, whilst more sophisticated and subtle scientific fraud is much harder to detect and often goes unnoticed. It is also widely accepted that cases of misconduct are largely underreported.
So, what can be done about this? Logically our first line of defence should be the journals; they have an obligation to enforce standards, and there is an expectation that research published in longstanding, well respected journals can be trusted. This is not necessarily the case, the big journals are not immune to fraud nor do they necessarily have the best practices when dealing with allegations of fraud. Though many journals do hold authors accountable and retract false data, retraction often takes years from the time of publication. Recent cases involving some of the most prestigious journals have showed that journals can often be hesitant to retract papers, whether for fear of litigation, reputation or other reasons. Though some journals have begun initiatives to reduce the number of fraudulent articles being published such as, increased transparency of authorship contribution, more detailed methods sections and more stringent quality control of data, this is not enough to fix the problem. Journals are not able reprimand bad actors and hence there is nothing stopping someone from continuing to publish fabricated results.
In the current system it is up to the host institutions to self regulate, and like many other industries this can be highly problematic and face inevitable conflicts of interest. Few institutions have personnel that are experienced, qualified, willing, not conflicted, and available to judge their colleagues. There are several examples in Australia of institutions ignoring blatant breaches of ethics, suppressing findings and closing cases prematurely in order to protect the reputation of the institution. Sadly, this problem will only get worse as the new code of ethics coming into effect in 2019 will put more emphasis on institution self regulation and have even less avenues to appeal their verdicts, drastically reducing culpability.
The current system is flawed and there needs to be uniform regulation regarding possible cases of misconduct. Though there is currently an Australian Research Integrity Committee, they have a very limited scope, with no power to investigate or judge a case based on merit. The committee are only allowed to ensure that institutional processes is followed. Even in cases were the process is not followed they are still only able to make recommendations to funding bodies. This means that we can not solely rely on either the journals or the institutes to handle these cases effectively but must have a independent body to ensure that science in Australia is performed at the highest ethical level.
Now more than ever it has become apparent that there is a need for an independent research body to enforce scientific standard and integrity. However unlike the USA, UK, Canada and 21 European nations, Australia is yet to establish an Office for Research Integrity to investigate incidents of research misconduct. This would enable cases of possible research misconduct to be handled effectively by independent, external, qualified inquiry panels bypassing institution self interest. It would help ensure that researchers and institutions act honestly and fairly. Most importantly, it would foster more responsible and ethical research. Creating an external body would also enhance the reputation of Australian research internationally. More and more the world is taking notice of which countries are addressing these issues. China has recently cracked down on scientific misconduct by introducing new reforms and India is calling for its own independent research body. If Australian research is going to continue to compete on a global stage it must follow suit.
As a society we must be able to trust research, this is why we require statistical significance, have an emphasis on reproducibility and numerous other safeguards to ensure that the data we collect is representative and accurate. A single scientist acting badly cannot undermine the entire system, but systematic failure to address this issue can. If effective measures are not put in place to fix the literature, hold these people accountable and foster an environment where these actions aren’t tolerated, we threaten the credibility of all medical research. With public perception of science failing in the eyes of many recently it is more important than ever to protect scientific integrity to maintain public confidence in research. As scientists we are trusted to act ethically, some researchers have already taken matters into their own hands, with websites such as Retraction Watch and PubPeer becoming more popular in order to hold fellow scientists accountable and monitor the literature.
This is a significant issue and one that won’t be fixed overnight, but one we all have a responsibility to be mindful of. If you are interested in learning more the following websites may be a good place to start and there are little things we can all do to improve research in Australia.
4 simple steps to more ethical research:
1. Be aware. In many instances of fraud allegations the co-authors were unaware of any misdeeds however they can still be held responsible. It is up to the co-authors to make sure any work that bears their name meets an ethical standard.
“It may be regarded as good research practice that those authors who have unreservedly approved a manuscript assume a collective responsibility for it.”
2. Speak up. If you see or suspect a fellow researcher is breaching the code of ethics it is important to report this to your institution. Everyone, but especially junior researches can be hesitant to speak up when they feel that they may receive backlash. There are places where you can voice concerns anonymously, such as websites like Pubpeer.com.
3. Act ethically and responsibly. In this ‘publish or perish’ environment the pressure to succeed, get the big paper and win grants can precipitate this bad behaviour. It is important that everyone takes responsibility for their actions and realize the severe implications that research misconduct can have.
4. Speak to your local politicians. Hopefully, we can all appreciate the need for an independent research office, but at the moment it is in the best interest of institutions to maintain the status quo. Change comes from the bottom, tell your local politicians that you are concerned about ethical research in Australia. The Minister for Education Hon. Simon Birmingham is located here in Adelaide, let him know you want an independent Australian research integrity office.