The latest news from the British Medical Journal is bad but hardly surprising. A survey of 2,700 doctors and scientists revealed 13 percent have witnessed colleagues altering or fabricating data during their research. That manipulation has included “inappropriately adjusting, excluding, altering or fabricating data.”
The BMJ further revealed that 6 percent of scientists and doctors think their own institutions are not properly investigating possible misconduct. In many cases, junior academics who might object are told to keep concerns to themselves if they wish to protect their careers, bullied into not publishing their findings, or had their contracts terminated when they spoke out.
Given that a 2001 BMJ study reported similar “misconduct,” the problem clearly isn’t going away on its own.
The findings were presented January 12 in the UK at a meeting cosponsored by the BMJ and by the International Committee on Publications Ethics (COPE). It included senior representatives from academia, government, funding agencies, and journals, who agreed individual researchers should have high ethical standards, but employing institutions have the prime responsibility of ensuring research conducted within their walls is honestly performed and reported.
Flagrant cases of fraud — such as the case of resveratrol researcher Dipak Das, who was exposed earlier this month after a University of Connecticut investigation revealed he had faked data on 145 different occasions over a seven year period — make the news headlines, but the delegates agreed that the greater problem is the “lesser offenses.” These include the selective publishing of research to avoid publishing disappointing results or the complete failure to publish any results from a study. Sadly, this is considered by many researchers today to be “business as usual.”
Why does so much of this happen? In today’s “publish or perish” culture, some researchers will do almost anything needed to get ahead. Another common reason is “checkbook research” in which data and conclusions are manipulated, massaged or omitted to please sponsors. Whatever the reason or reasons, junior academics who might object are advised to keep concerns to themselves if they wish to protect their careers, bullied into not publishing their findings, or fired for speaking out.
Liz Wager, PhD, a freelance writer and editor who serves as chair of COPE, concluded in her BMJ Blog that “problems in reporting research studies distort the scientific literature and provide an unreliable base for the development of systematic reviews and clinical practice guidelines. ” Furthermore, while “plagiarism may be a nasty symptom of a sick system, it has probably never killed anybody while unreliable guidelines and misguided research undoubtedly have.”
BMJ Editor in Chief Dr. Fiona Godlee believes, “UK science and medicine deserve better,” and “doing nothing is not an option.” Although she conceded the survey fails to provide a full estimate of how much research misconduct takes place in the UK, it proves there are a “substantial number of cases” and institutions are “failing to investigate adequately if at all.”
In their BMJ editorial, Dr. Richard Lehman of Oxford University, and Dr. Elizabeth Loder, the journal’s clinical epidemiology editor, added, “A large proportion of evidence from human trials is unreported and much of what is reported is done so inadequately. We are not dealing here with trial design, hidden bias, or problems of data analysis — we are talking simply about the absence of data. And this is no academic matter, because missing data about harm in trials can harm patients, and incomplete data about benefit can lead to futile costs to health systems. Moreover, researchers or others who deliberately conceal trial results have breached their ethical duty to trial participants.” The two called for an end to what they called the “culture of haphazard publication and incomplete data disclosure” and proposed more robust regulation and full access to the raw trial data, not just what ends up being published.
These are all excellent suggestions, especially the last. Those of us who review studies need to be able to look at raw data to judge the quality of a study and and the accuracy of its conclusions for ourselves. As public watchdogs, we too can help journals and researchers stay honest and accountable.
That said, it’s most interesting that the BMJ — a respected whistleblower on research misconduct for many years — itself chose to play a primary role in the smearing of Dr. Andrew Wakefield, whose controversial research connecting vaccinations and autism has proved highly troubling for the future profits of Big Pharm
Given that numerous independent researchers and doctors have found troubling links, high-quality, independent research is clearly needed. That, of course, is exactly what Dr. Wakefield recommended. Media accusations to the contrary, he never claimed to have established clear cause and effect. As he wrote in the Discussion section of the Lancet paper,”We did not prove an association between measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and the syndrome described” and the last paragraph of the study he adds, “We have identified a chronic enterocolitis in children that may be related to neuropsychiatric dysfunction. In most cases, onset of symptoms was after measles, mumps, and rubella immunisation. Further investigations are needed to examine this syndrome and its possible relation to this vaccine.”
In fact a substantial body of credible research published since 1998 — listed on Dr. Mercola’s website and available at medical libraries — suggests the validity of Dr. Wakefield’s concerns.
Yet another reason to mistrust the BMJ expose is its failure to disclose that since 2008 both BMJ and The Lancet have been in lucrative partnerships with Merck. This is clearly a serious conflict of interest and breach of ethics.
Truth cannot be suppressed so BMJ may well find itself in the embarrassing position of having boldly pointed one finger at disreputable researchers with three other fingers pointing back at itself.
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Tavare A. Institutions must do more to eliminate research misconduct, meeting hears. BMJ. 2012 Jan 16;344:e446. doi: 10.1136/bmj.e446. No abstract available.
Wakefield’s article linking MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent, BMJ 2011; 342:c7452 (Published 5 January 2011). http://www.bmj.com/content/342/bmj.c7452