Liz Wager: Can we immunise Brazilian science against fraud?

Liz WagerI’m in Sao Jose dos Campos, near Sao Paulo, Brazil, on the last leg of BRISPE 1 – the First Brazilian meeting on Research Integrity, Science & Publication Ethics, which started in Rio de Janeiro last week. Brazilian science is, apparently, booming. A recent article in Science described it as “riding a gusher.” An astrophysicist told me, quite seriously, that Brazil had considered offering funding to the UK arm of an international space consortium and offered his condolences on the parlous state of UK research funding.

Brazilian scientists who’ve also worked in the US and Europe say the relentless competition and pressure to publish, which may be a factor in self-plagiarism, salami publication, and perhaps also in outright fraud, is starting to build in Brazil. It’s not yet as bad, but they feel it coming, and are worried that research misconduct may follow in its wake. Meanwhile, some senior scientists are recognising the need for training in research integrity and publication ethics – which is encouraging.

I don’t think anybody really knows whether scientists in Brazil commit less or more misconduct than those in other places. (Experts can’t agree on the frequency of misconduct in the best monitored parts of the world, so I’m not going to even try to guess on the basis of a whistlestop tour of three cities.) But, whatever the current situation, prevention has to be better than cure and the rapid growth in Brazilian science makes this a good time and place to start.

An article in a local paper reported increases in diabetes and cancer (or it may have been decreases – I was guessing my way through an article in Portuguese, based on passing Latin O-level 30 years ago and a smattering of operatic Italian …) which made me think about the “diseases of prosperity” spreading through the developing world. It made me wonder if research and publication misconduct might be viewed as a disease of affluent but over-competitive research systems. It’s probably an over-simplification, as fraud probably has as much to do with personal ambition, greed, and laziness, but it’s still a useful thought experiment. So, if we accept the idea that Brazil, and other rapidly developing and middle income countries, are at risk of catching this contagion from the industrialised world, what can we do to prevent the spread? Like many real public health initiatives we may get the best results from raising awareness, educating those at risk and promoting healthy behaviours rather than relying on developing high-tech solutions. I’m not sure we’ll ever have the equivalent of a vaccine that would give lifelong protection – the risks, or temptations, for misconduct, will always be present. But maybe, if Brazilian research funding continues to soar, and initiatives like BRISPE gain momentum, they’ll be able to export some effective anti-fraud remedies or vaccines to us in the future as well as funding our space research.

Liz Wager is a freelance medical writer, editor, and trainer. She is the current chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE).