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May 26, 2013 / neurograce

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Untrue

This is a piece about the present state, and potential future, of fraud in scientific research which  I wrote for a Responsible Conduct in Research course taught at Columbia.

There seems to be a trend as of late of prominent scientific researchers been outed for fabrications or falsifications in their data. Diederik Stapel’s extravagant web of invented findings certainly stands out as one of the worst examples, and will probably do long term damage to the field of psychology. But psychology is not alone; other realms of research are suffering from this plague too. For example, the UK government exercised for the first time its right to imprison scientific fraudsters when it sentenced Steven Eaton to 3 months for falsifying data regarding an anti-cancer drug. And accusations of fraud fly frequently from both sides of the debate over climate change. Studies would suggest these misdeeds aren’t limited to just the names that make the news. In an attempt to quantify just how bad scientists are being, journalists sent out a misconduct questionnaire to medical science researchers in Belgium. Four out of the 315 anonymous respondents (1.3%) admitted to flat out fabrication of data and 24% acknowledged seeing such fabrication done by others. Furthermore, analysis of publishing practices has shown a steep increase in the rate of retractions of journal articles since 2005, and investigations suggest that up to 43% of such retractions are due to fraud, with an additional 9.8% coming from plagiarism. It seems clear from both anecdotes and analysis, dishonesty abounds in the research world.

But as with any criminal activity, it is hard to really know how accurate statistics on fraud in scientific publishing can be. Is this wave of retractions and public floggings really a result of an increase in inappropriate behavior, or just an increase in the reporting of it? In other words, are we producing more scientists who are willing to lie, cheat, and steal to get ahead, or more who are willing to sound the alarm on those who do?

Certainly the current financial climate creates an incentive, a need even, for a researcher to stand out from the crowd of their peers like never before. To secure funding from grants, publications highlighting hot-topic research findings are a must. The less money going into science, the more competition there is for grants. So, those research findings must become hotter and more frequent. Furthermore, much of the same “high impact publication”-based criteria is used for determining who gets postdoc positions, assistant professorships, and even tenure. This kind of pressure could, and apparently does, lead some scientists to fake it when they can’t make it.

But while today’s economy may make it easier to justify cheating, today’s technology can make it harder to execute it. We have the ability to automatically search large datasets for the numerical anomalies or repetitions that are hallmarks of fabrication. The contents of an article can be compared to large databases of text to catch a plagiarized paragraph before any human eyes have read it. And the anonymity of the internet provides a way for anyone to report suspicious behavior of even the most senior of scientists without fearing retribution. Thus, it may seem obvious that case after case of fraud is being exposed.

No matter the specific reasons for this recent uptick, misconduct in research is something that always has been and always will be with us. In any competitive situation, with glory and profit on the line, some people will turn to deceit to get ahead. So what can we do reduce the number of wrong-doers to the lowest possible? Well certainly the technological tools mentioned above can help. And some may argue that we should go further, and implement as much surveillance of scientists during their data-collecting as possible. Oversight can prevent the usually solitary scientist from engaging in any “data massaging” that they may have considered when no one was looking. Pre-registration of studies is another tool to ensure experimenters aren’t trying to fiddle with or cover up unsavory data. By stating, before the experiment even begins, what is meant to be tested and how, researchers will be less able to squeeze out whatever p<.05 trends they can find in the data and pretend that’s what they were looking for all along.

While such tools can be effective in preventing the deed of fraud, I think, as a field, we would be better served by preventing the motivation for fraud. This means moving away from a funding system that puts unreasonable weight on flashy results and towards one that favors critical thinking, solid methods, and open data/code sharing. We will need to learn to evaluate our peers by this same criteria as well. Furthermore, our publishing process has to make room for the printing of negative results and replicated studies. The scientist who accidentally stumbles upon an intriguing finding shouldn’t necessarily be praised higher than those who attempt to replicate a result they find suspicious or who have spent years tediously testing hypotheses which turn out to be incorrect. Certainly positive novel findings will continue to be the driving force of any field, and this explains them taking precedence when publishing resources were limited. But with today’s online publishing and quick searches, there is little justification for ignoring other kinds of findings. Additionally, it is now possible for journals to host large datasets and code repositories online along with their journal articles, allowing researchers to get credit for these contributions as well. Technological advancements can be used not only to catch fraud, but to implement the changes that will prevent the motivation for it as well.

Of course, incorporating these achievements will require a more complex means of evaluating scientists for grants and promotions, and this will take time. But it is crucial that we start We need to create a culture that recognizes the importance of a good scientific process and the extreme harm done by introducing dishonesty into it. The hierarchical nature of science, with new studies being built on the backs of old ones, means that one small act of fraud can have far-reaching and potentially irreversible effects on the field. Furthermore, it damages the reputation of scientific research in the public eye, which can lessen confidence and support. People may have been upset to learn of Jonah Lerner’s fraudulent reporting of neuroscience, but such concerns pale in comparison to learning of the fraudulent conducting of neuroscience. While fraud and data manipulation are hardly new problems, there can always be new solutions for combating them. We are lucky to live in an age that allows us the tools to detect such practices when they occur, and also to change the system that encourages them. While it is unlikely that we will ever fully eradicate scientific misconduct, we can hope to create a culture amongst scientist that makes dishonesty less common and that views fabrication as an unthinkable option. Van Noorden, R. (2011). Science publishing: The trouble with retractions Nature, 478 (7367), 26-28 DOI: 10.1038/478026a

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