Domhnall MacAuley: Unintended misconduct identified in research

Domhnall MacauleyTwo recent stories provoked a fascinating discussion on misconduct in research—that have nothing to do with the authors, and in the most unlikely of journals. The May 15th edition of the Journal of Applied Physiology explored these two cases in detail. There was no suggestion of research misconduct by the authors, but these controversies introduce a whole new perspective into the ethics of research. Pater Wagner explains what he did in his editorial, “When worlds collide—elite sport, doping, and scientific research.” Take a look at the brief histories below—and see what you think?

First. Ed Coyle, a well respected exercise scientist in the University of Texas, published a paper in 2005, charting the physiological development of an elite professional cyclist over a seven year period 1992-1999. Lance Armstrong’s  later admission of doping begs the question—was he doping at the time of this study. So, if you were the editor of the journal—how would you respond?

Second. A research study recruited cyclists to an experiment examining the effect of hypoxia on performance with a protocol that included blood extraction and retransfusion and the use of plasma expanders—which seems a reasonable and topical research question. A letter to the editor later asked about the ethical aspects of manipulations that would be banned in competition under World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) rules. So, were these athletes, taking part in a research study with no intention of improving their importance in competition, guilty under doping regulations?

Ed Coyle was invited to write an editorial in which he says that he could not tell how much of the cyclists performance could be attributed to doping, nor could he have known at the time. We do not know therefore if the results are a true reflection or the unenhanced ability of the athlete. Coyle, however, points out that four of the five laboratory analyses were preseason or during reduced training. Wagner asks if Coyle’s paper should be retracted, but concludes that it should not—that there is no suggestion of the author misconduct and, the results published are the true results of the study.

This issue of the journal also contains a response from the authors of the study in JAP on haematological manipulation (and another related study) to the letter to the editor, together with an official response from WADA. The participating cyclists had given informed consent to the study- knowing the implications. But, the response from WADA is clear cut. Their 10 point response includes guidance that such research studies should not expose elite athletes to doping procedures “unless specific dispositions are made such as retiring the athletes as active athletes for a considerable period.”

Do read the editorial and related documents. They give a fascinating insight into problems faced by the editor of the journal, the difficult correspondence, and the unintended consequences of appropriately reported research studies.

Domhnall MacAuley is primary care editor, BMJ.