Face up to fraud

Journal name:
Date published:
Published online

The UK government and funding agencies must address research misconduct.

Many people in science would rather not talk about the problem of research misconduct, much less act on it. After all, who directly involved would benefit from a serious crackdown? Certainly not the institutions at which the misconduct takes place — they are nominally responsible, but can face legal repercussions, embarrassing headlines and a public-relations disaster if they expose cheating academics. It is much easier to shuffle miscreants out of the side door with vague references and a promise of silence, effectively pushing the problem somewhere else, and onto someone else.

So it is perhaps a sort of progress that the British Medical Journal and the international Committee on Publication Ethics were able to organize a meeting on the subject in London last week, gathering representatives from universities, funders, journals and lobby groups to discuss how the problem could be tackled in the United Kingdom (see Nature http://doi.org/hmx; 2012). The meeting broke little new ground, but its organizers do, at least, deserve credit for trying.

“Stronger action and punishments are needed to discourage misbehaviour.”

A big part of the problem is the lack of perceived risk associated with misconduct. Some fraudulent researchers might be sociopaths who don't care about the rules, but many others simply believe that they can anticipate the outcome of a research project, and see no downside to fabricating the required results to save time, or tweaking results to achieve a stronger signal. Either way, stronger action and punishments are needed to discourage such misbehaviour. (Meanwhile, for colleagues considering blowing the whistle, the risks are glaringly huge — witness the plight of scientists, such as cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst, who have raised questions and have faced the full force of Britain's ludicrous libel laws as a result.)

Could publications such as this one do more to deter cheats? Unfortunately, we are often in no position to flag up even proven cases of misconduct, and thereby highlight the risks that miscreants run with their careers. Yes, it is a journal's primary job to clean up the literature, but when papers are retracted owing to misconduct, the libel laws (again) often prevent our editors from saying so. We know that this leaves the affected communities frustrated and in the dark. It leaves us frustrated, too.

So, with journals unable to push towards greater integrity and universities often unwilling to do so, should funding agencies be leading the charge? It is, after all, their money that is wasted if misconduct does occur.

Funding agencies in the United States do sometimes investigate misconduct. Research funded by the National Institutes of Health and some other government agencies falls under the remit of the Office for Research Integrity (ORI), which has the power to bar researchers from receiving future funding. However, as Nicholas Steneck, director of the research-ethics programme at the Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research in Ann Arbor, told the London meeting, this process probably misses most major misconduct. And the ORI can't initiate investigations: institutions must conduct their own inquiries first.

In the United Kingdom, there seems to be little appetite for launching an overarching ORI-type regulator. Certainly, the existing independent advisory group, the UK Research Integrity Office in Falmer, is clear that it has no desire to take on such a role. British funding councils — in collaboration with the country's universities — have chosen instead to produce a 'concordat' detailing good practice, to which institutions will be expected to sign up. This is laudable, but unlikely to strike fear into fraudsters and fabricators.

So, how can Britain highlight cases of misconduct and discourage it in future? Ultimately, the incentives probably need to come from on high, and the government could get the ball rolling by commissioning an anonymous survey on misconduct that UK researchers have witnessed and perpetrated. An official audit would offer a strong platform for others to build on — perhaps with a parliamentary inquiry and subsequent report on the damage done to UK science by misconduct, and an assessment of the options for tackling it and the investment needed. Funders and universities could then work together to establish common definitions of what counts as misconduct, and how it will be punished. And if a reform of the libel laws goes ahead, journals and other scientists would be able to do more to highlight and expose miscreants.

Sounds ambitious? If the solutions were easy, there wouldn't be a problem to discuss. But there is, so we must face it.


  1. Report this comment #37069

    David Lewis said:

    I agree that elected officials in the UK, USA and elsewhere need to get serious about the impact research misconduct is having on the quality of science. Institutional research misconduct, which occurs when government agencies, corporations and academic institutions engage in research misconduct to protect government policies and industry practices, should be at the top of the list. It often involves not only violations of basic principles of responsible and ethical conduct of research, but federal statutes as well. For example, in violation of the Federal Grants and Cooperative Agreement Act of 1977, federal agencies sometimes fund researchers who predetermine outcomes of their research to support government polices. Government agencies are highly motivated to support and protect their policies in various important areas of science.

    Researchers who threaten the interests of government agencies, corporations and academic institutions often find themselves targeted with false allegations of research misconduct. This too needs to be addressed at the highest levels of government. Scientific research has never offered greater hope for the future than it does now. This hope, however, will quickly fade if government agencies continue to manipulate the scientific enterprise with impunity.

    David L. Lewis, Ph.D., Director
    Research Misconduct Project
    National Whistleblowers Center
    Washington, DC 20007

  2. Report this comment #37071

    John Stone said:

    What a very good idea but I am not sure whether BMJ is the most credible institution at present to lead such an initiative.

    We have to consider every time in such cases whether they are what they say or just another power bid. It is worth noting that BMJ's learning division is in partnersihip with the information division of Merck, Univadis, and this came about in 2006 with Vioxx controversy scarcely buried. We have to know who we are listening to, and who is paying.

  3. Report this comment #37090

    Anurag Chaurasia said:

    As science & publishing journals have no geographical boundaries, global scientific agencies like United Nation should come out with uniform ORI type institution to tackle the scientific misconducts across the globe. Any kind of scientific forgery should be severely punished to prevent such malpractices.
    Anurag chaurasia,ICAR,India,anurag_vns1@yahoo.co.in,anurag@nbaim.org.in,+919452196686(M)

  4. Report this comment #37117

    Terence hale said:

    Face up to fraud. Fraud and unnecessary duplication are the two money wasters of science. Fraud definition must be refined. Putting things in a positive light, subtile advertising or just manipulating the truth could also be seen as such.

  5. Report this comment #37157

    David Miller said:

    Nature and David Lewis are correct up to a point, but they either ignore or turn a blind eye to the 'acceptable' face of misconduct that goes on behind closed doors at funders' board meetings. While those applying for money have to go through ever more elaborate hoops and hurdles in the interests of transparency to stand any chance of success (the latest obstacles in the UK being impact, the environment and the REF) , those making the final decisions continue to remain hidden from view and ultimately unaccountable! Surely those working very hard to attract public money should have the right to know how their proposals are dealt with at final Board or committee level and that minutes should be available for all to see. Identities could be protected without compromising transparency thus maintaining the processes's anonymity. It's high time those dishing out taxpayers' money revealed their funding decision mechanisms and were held accountable to those seeking support be they successful or not. Research misconduct will not go away while there is an incentive to cheat!

  6. Report this comment #37158

    David Miller said:

    Actually, reading David Lewis's comments through again and having been to his web site, perhaps he is arguing my point for me?

  7. Report this comment #64681

    sbs steel said:

    line each line i read and i like this editorial especially this A big part of the problem is the lack of perceived risk associated with misconduct. Some fraudulent researchers might be sociopaths who don't care about the rules, but many others simply believe that they can
    pakar seo tobak

Subscribe to comments

Additional data