Don’t believe everything you read (including in scientific journals)

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News broke last week (see here for an example) that a University of Connecticut researcher had be found to have falsified data concerning his research into the antioxidant resveratrol (found in, among other things, red wine and red grapes). This week the British Medical Journal reports on the fact that a doctor and flu vaccine researcher based at Leicester University in the UK has been suspended for a range of misdemeanours including forging colleagues signatures and recruiting himself into a study under a disguised name.

It would be comforting to think of these events as isolated incidences in the scientific community. However, according to a recent piece in the British Medical Journal, scientific misconduct is ‘worryingly prevalent’, at least in the UK [1].

The BMJ sent out a questionnaire to more than 9,000 researchers and reviewers asking if they has knowledge of colleagues “inappropriately adjusting, excluding, altering, or fabricating data” for the purpose of publication. Of those who responded, 13 per cent admitted they had such knowledge. 6 per cent admitted they were aware of misconduct within their own institutions which remained insufficiently investigated.

On January 12, the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) held a summit to address the problem of research misconduct in the UK. Referring to the BMJ survey, the Chair of COPE Dr Elizabeth Wagner is quoted as saying “This survey chimes with our experience from COPE where we see many cases of institutions not cooperating with journals and failing to investigate research misconduct properly.”

In a recent editorial in the BMJ [2], Dr Wagner and the BMJ’s editor Fiona Godlee wrote: “There are enough known or emerging cases to suggest that the UK’s apparent shortage of publicly investigated examples has more to do with a closed, competitive, and fearful academic culture than with Britain’s researchers being uniquely honest.”

My feeling is if the culture wasn’t so ‘closed, competitive, and fearful’ we’d probably see that misconduct is even more prevalent than the recent BMJ survey suggests. And that’s a problem because we really do need to rely on the integrity of research findings in making truly informed decisions about health and the management of disease.

Personally, I’m delighted that institutions such as the BMJ and COPE are shining a light onto this issue and thinking about how we might curb research misconduct.


1. Tavare A. Scientific misconduct is worryingly prevalent in the UK, shows BMJ survey. BMJ 2012;344:e377

2. Godlee F, et al. Research misconduct in the UK. BMJ 2012;344:d8357

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