Liz Wager: Researchers behaving badly

Liz WagerAt an international research integrity meeting in Lisbon last year, I was horrified when a US scientist told me that UK universities didn’t reply to her concerns about alleged research misconduct. We cannot be proud of the fact that the UK scientific establishment took so long to set up a body to investigate research misconduct. And, even more embarrasing is the fact that, now we have the UK Research Integrity Office (RIO), it is hasn’t even got permanent funding.

I’ve been to a meeting at Keele University this week to discuss the future of RIO and try to get British universities and medical schools to face their responsibilities.

I’m not saying that science is riddled with fraudsters. I actually believe out-and-out fraud is very rare. But its effects can be serious and academic institutions need to work together to play their part in stamping it out. I also think that focusing on the smaller stuff such as correct authorship attribution can help prevent the major problems.

But it needs a concerted effort from educators (starting at school when students need to be taught that copying and pasting from Wikipedia does not constitute research and creative writing), journal editors (who need to provide clear guidance to contributors) and senior academics (who may be part of the problem if they insist on putting their name on every paper from their department). Appropriate research conduct and publication ethics should be on the syllabus and engrained in the values of every academic institution. It’s everybody’s responsibility. Do you have any comments? Have your say on the blog.

Update from Keele, 17 April: Just back from the Governance of Good Research Conduct in Keele. Everybody seems to agree that we need higher standards and better systems but academics are so terrified by the prospect of ‘more bureaucracy’ that they resist the idea of national standards. I was interested to meet people from a much wider range of disciplines than most of the meetings I attend. To be honest, I hadn’t previously given much thought to what good research conduct in the performing arts might entail. It was also sobering to hear one delegate say we shouldn’t use the word ‘training’ because it ‘reeked of bureaucracy and boredom’ …. that’s certainly food for thought for people like me who run training courses. Maybe I’ll have to start selling them under an exotic euphemism. But as my courses are about communication and plain English, that would be ironic. Anybody for some knowledge enhancing, performance improvement exercises? Suggestions, please!

About Liz Wager

Liz Wager is a freelance writer, trainer and publications consultant who works
for a number of pharmaceutical companies, communication agencies, publishers and
academic institutions. She is also the Secretary of COPE (the Committee On
Publication Ethics) and a member of the BMJ’s Ethics Committee.

  • “Publish or perish” philosophy significantly contributes to fraud and mundane repetitive research. Real research should be to take knowledge forwards, more by refuting false dogmas than by repeating known facts, as suggested by Karl Popper.

    Clinical research is all about having a new problem on the bed side and going as far away from the bed as one can to get an answer.

    Fraud has a lot to do with societal moral standards and ethics. Fraud can not be rooted out in medical research in isolation unless we take care to bring up a generation which stands for ethics and high moral standards in all walks of life. We need to look at fraud from that point of view as well; mere policing might not yield long term results.

  • Carmel M Martin

    While power and prestige are vested in the University reward system based on achievements of large grants, publication metrics and empires of research personnel, little progress will be made. Respect for original ideas and people with original ideas is swamped by mindless performance metrics. What has been the impact of the millions of dollars/pounds of research on health? rather than citations?

  • William Stevenson

    It’s the small stuff that adds up- people are led to believe from school onwards that if they can get away with it they should. The UK generally believes things that are embarrassing are best covered up. I discovered really gross fabrication of the type of research that goes on during Open University Summer Schools for a 3rd year degree level biological science course. Despite it being obvious, and the provision of the fabricated documents, the OU preferred to do nothing about it and let the fabricated ‘resaearch’ stand.
    This is why the UK is getting a bad reputation in this matter.

  • Miguel Roig

    Most would agree that the major forms of misconduct: fabrication, falsification, and outright plagiarism are 1) rare, 2) they can have very serious effects on science, and 3) they can ultimately place people’s health and lives at risk. However, there is a growing concensus that so-called minor forms of misconduct, such as duplicate publication, minor misrepresentations of data and/or conclusions, and undeclared conflicts of interest are quite common and that, collectively, these can have equally serious consequences. My sense is that, in far too many cases, these infractions occur because the perpetrators are either ignorant of the rules of proper research conduct or because they do not consider these inappropriate practices to be sufficiently serious. Such attitudes need to change and one effective way to accomplish the task is to use education and training.

    For anyone connected with the scientific or academic enterprise to hold the view that “training” in these important areas would be boring or would represent a bureaucratic hurdle to be overcome, is a most unfortunate attitude. I hope such views are only held by a small minority, for they are neither consistent with the mission of academic institutions nor with the goals of science and scholarship.