Call for tighter standards to combat tide of science misconduct

Thu Oct 18, 2012 12:31pm EDT

* Academies say quality should be rewarded, not volume

* Urge tightening of peer-review process

By Chris Wickham

LONDON, Oct 18 (Reuters) - False claims from scientific research have prompted health scares and unjustified product bans, and a report this week from the world's national science academies predicts misconduct is set to rise.

One of the highest-profile cases in recent years was triggered by a 1998 study suggesting a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, which caused vaccination rates in Britain to plummet and the number of measles cases to rise.

Over a decade later, Andrew Wakefield, the doctor behind the study, was removed from the UK medical register after being found guilty of misconduct.

"The incidence of irresponsible conduct is likely to rise with the growing amount of research being undertaken," said the report, entitled Responsible Conduct in the Global Research Enterprise.

The academies called on scientists around the world to sign up to a common standard of ethics and the agencies that fund their research to stop rewarding volume over quality.

"Arguably, the current reward system of science and intense competition for jobs and funding can create perverse incentives for institutions and individual researchers alike," Ferric Fang, a professor of medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle, told Reuters.

Fang threw the spotlight on scientific fraud this month with one of the most comprehensive studies on retracted research papers. The project was unconnected with the academies' report.

With his collaborator Arturo Casadevall at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, Fang found that two thirds of 2,047 retracted papers in the biomedical and life sciences were withdrawn because of fraud.

Their findings challenged the widely-held assumption that the vast majority of retractions were down to honest errors.

INCENTIVES

Misconduct is by no means limited to one country. But the reward system in China, where scientists can earn bonuses of several years' salary for getting a paper into a top international journal, has been blamed for a series of damaging scandals involving plagiarism and the falsification of data.

Fraud can taint any profession but in science it seems to be rising particularly fast.

At the end of last year, the science journal Nature reported a ten-fold increase over the last decade in the number of research papers that had been retracted, although the number of journals had expanded only 44 percent.

Nature estimated that half of such cases were due to misconduct, and the other half to honest errors.

Whatever its causes, lack of scientific rigour can have major commercial consequences. A recent study by French scientists linking a type of genetically modified corn made by Monsanto to cancers in rats led Russia to temporarily ban imports of the corn.

That paper, published in a peer reviewed journal, was subsequently condemned by the EU's food safety regulator as having insufficient scientific quality to draw any conclusions.

The report from the academies calls for a tightening-up of the peer review process, in which research papers and grant applications are scrutinised by fellow scientists.

Fang welcomed the report as a "a useful statement of current consensus regarding the responsible conduct of research" but he said the governing bodies of science needed to go further.

He said more countries should create independent regulators with bigger teeth to police science, like the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) in the United States.

"Many countries do not have an agency like the ORI, and even in the U.S. the ORI is limited to researchers receiving federal government support, which leaves out much of industry-sponsored research," he said.

"I am strongly supportive of a global effort to eliminate scientific misconduct, but I think that the ... report is just a start."

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