Issue 43 / 5 November 2012

AUSTRALIAN researchers have little time to think about the potential for misconduct in health and medical research.

To the extent that misconduct is considered, it is likely to be during the seemingly endless form filling required to obtain ethics approval to proceed with research, or when a research-related scandal achieves notoriety.

A recent article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)  concludes that structural reform of the world of research is required if misconduct is to be seriously tackled.

The authors of the article say that in the past 5 years scientific papers have been retracted at an increasingly higher frequency. They found that, of the 2047 retractions of biomedical and life-science research articles indexed by PubMed on 3 May 2012, 21.3% were attributable to error but 67.4% were retracted because of fraud, duplicate publication and, to a lesser extent, plagiarism.

The journals Science and PNAS had the most articles retracted — 70 and 69 respectively. Importantly though, the papers identified as retracted are those in which problems have been detected.

The same authors noted in Infection and Immunity that “There is a general consensus that retracted publications are the proverbial ‘tip of the iceberg’ ”. This and the rising rate of retraction, they suggest, is indicative of growing difficulties in both the culture of science and perhaps the reliability of scientific evidence.

The authors consider research misconduct to be due to a “hypercompetitive” and resource-limited research environment. To the more highly published individual researcher, in the more respected journals, go the spoils — grants, employment and advancement.

The strained environment in which most researchers work will not change in the foreseeable future, so the temptation to cut corners will remain. Given this, the authors make a number of suggestions to address the potential for misconduct including vigilance by those involved in reviewing, editing and reading papers; better training in research methods

and in ethics; uniform retraction guidance and notices; and novel reward systems for researchers. (See table)

Reference is also made to the value of the American Office of Research Integrity, an office that has no Australian counterpart.

Other than noting the importance of internal investigations undertaken by research institutions, not a great deal more is said about the place of local role models and leadership in combating misconduct.

Australian researchers are likely to have spent significant periods in institutional settings in the time between completing their training and submitting research papers. Yet, little or no tangible encouragement or reward is available in these settings for researchers who actively endeavour to promote ethical practice.

In addition, anyone who reports wrongdoing may be viewed as a troublemaker and suffer consequences similar to those experienced by whistleblowers in other circumstances.

Reports of misconduct may be ignored as they are uncomfortable, if not confronting, to deal with, and it is often in no one’s immediate interest to pursue such reports.

When problems are too big to ignore the preferred strategy may be to keep them contained unless institutional self-interest dictates that, in the interest of future projects, the funding body be informed. Accountability systems that do exist tend to involve written reports to funders, ethics committees and perhaps in response to internal research governance requirements. These reports can be fudged.

Written reports cannot, however, take the place of local example — a thorough and fair response to concerns that are properly reported — and tangible institutional recognition and reward for efforts to promote good practice.

Ethics committees in this country — often, and perhaps mistakenly, regarded as the guardians of good conduct in research — have no capacity to police misconduct. These committees examine applications at a point in time when almost all decision making about research focus, methods and staffing have been made.

These committees continue to be reliant on researchers to report difficulties, thus cannot by themselves provide grounds for public confidence that research is being conducted ethically.

In another paper, these authors compare scientific misconduct with doping in sport — an issue dominating the media in recent weeks.

The comparison is reasonable, although the consequences for the public of scientific misconduct are likely to be a great deal worse.

Problem

Reform

Suggested solutions

Honest retractions

Methodological

  • Embracing philosophy with formal training in logic, epistemology and metaphysics
  • Rigorous training in probability and statistics
  • Increased use of checklists

Dishonest retractions

Cultural

  • Development of new reward systems with an emphasis on quality and a recognition of team science
  • Reconsideration of the priority rule
  • Establishment of a centralised database of scientific misconduct
  • Enhanced focus on ethics

Associated Professor Bebe Loff is the director of the Michael Kirby Centre for Public Health and Human Rights at Monash University.

Posted 5 November 2012

3 thoughts on “Bebe Loff: Combating misconduct

  1. Professor Bernie Tuch says:

    Australia does have a Research Integrity Committee [http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/health-ethics/research-integrity/australian-research-in... that provides a review system of institutional processes to respond to allegations of research misconduct.

    To some extent,then, Australia does have an equivalent of the American Office of Research Integrity (http://ori.hhs.gov), contrary to what the author has stated.

  2. Criminalise Misconduct says:

    I recently became aware of an instance of possible research misconduct. Getting anyone to take research misconduct seriously was an impossibility. A university investigation, the Parliamentary Ombudsman & National Academy of Medicine failed to fully address anomalies in the study’s protocol, ethics approval process & the published findings. The journal editor made things worse by posting derogatory tweets about both the complainant & the British Press Council that investigated.There was no right of reply. We are in the midst of a serious crisis that threatens to destroy public trust in medical science. The answer to research misconduct? Treat it as we do fraud & treat lying to investigating authorities as perjury, complete with the appropriate criminal penalties. Anything less is akin to shifting the deck-chairs on the Titanic!

  3. Max King says:

    I still have nightmares about Andrew Wakefield’s disgraceful article in The Lancet in 1998. It took a brief moment in history for his autism – MMR vaccination to make sensational, and terrifying headlines in the popular press. It took many years of diligent investigation for this claim to debunked – but the damage had been done. Lunatic loud-mouths had gained the ears of the media and their irrational preaching had preyed upon the consciences of ignorant parents. Newborns were, and still are, denied protection against childhood diseases.

    So, I consider that Wakefield was guilty of advocating, encouraging child abuse – a criminal act.

    Overall, I consider that fraudulent medical research constitutes a crime of endangering public safety – even to the extent of manslaughter.

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