Scientific fraud in the UK: The time has come for regulation

3 Aug

In a recent article in the Guardian, Brian Deer poses the question of whether regulation needs to be applied to scientific research. The article, Scientific fraud in the UK: The time has come for regulation, Mr. Deer states:

Fellows of the Royal Society aren’t supposed to shriek. But that’s what one did at a public meeting recently when I leapt onto my hobbyhorse: fraud in science. The establishment don’t want to know. An FRS in the audience – a professor of structural biology – practically vaulted across the room in full cry. What got this guy’s goat was my suggestion that scientists are no more trustworthy than restaurant managers or athletes.

Restaurant kitchens are checked because some of them are dirty. Athletes are drug-tested because some of them cheat. Old people’s homes, hospitals and centres for the disabled are subjected to random inspections. But oh-so-lofty scientists plough on unperturbed by the darker suspicions of our time.

Mr. Deer’s article mentions a just release UK Government report “Peer review in scientific publications” Here is the final paragraph from the summary for that report:

Finally, we found that the integrity of the peer-review process can only ever be as robust as the integrity of the people involved. Ethical and scientific misconduct—such as in the Wakefield case—damages peer review and science as a whole. Although it is not the role of peer review to police research integrity and identify fraud or misconduct, it does, on occasion, identify suspicious cases. While there is guidance in place for journal editors when ethical misconduct is suspected, we found the general oversight of research integrity in the UK to be unsatisfactory. We note that the UK Research Integrity Futures Working Group report recently made sensible recommendations about the way forward for research integrity in the UK, which have not been adopted. We recommend that the Government revisit the recommendation that the UK should have an oversight body for research integrity that provides “advice and support to research employers and assurance to research funders”, across all disciplines. Furthermore, while employers must take responsibility for the integrity of their employees’ research, we recommend that there be an external regulator overseeing research integrity. We also recommend that all UK research institutions have a specific member of staff leading on research integrity.

I find it odd that they are focusing on peer-review, which seems to me to be a narrow field of research integrity. That said, the report is recommending that “an oversight body for research integrity” be formed.

Back to Mr. Deer’s article. He quotes a Dr. David Taylor on why such oversight might not be needed:

“It is important to recognise that in the long term it matters little if published material is inaccurate, incompetent or even fraudulent, since the advance of the scientific canon only uses that material which turns out to fit the gradually emerging jigsaw,” is how Dr David Taylor, a former executive at AstraZeneca, expressed this tenet in a recent submission to the House of Commons science and technology committee, which publishes a report today.

I think that Dr. Taylor is taking a rather idealistic view of research. Yes, there is a self-correcting nature to research. Those results which are wrong will not be replicated and will, over time, fade.

But, how much time does it take for the self-correction? Autism research provides, unfortunately, a great example of the persistence of poor level, even fraudulent, research. For example, the concept of an epidemic caused by vaccines, either through the MMR vaccine or through thimerosal, was promoted by research which ran the gamut from reasonable speculation to outright fraud. One of the prime examples of research fraud which the committee cited in the report is on the MMR/autism hypothesis.

The problem is that while we wait for this “self correction”, real people suffer the consequences. Aside from the mental anguish it has caused, the vaccine/autism epidemic idea has spawned an industry of alternative medicine practitioners and treatments. These treatments run the gamut from worthless/harmless to powerful medicine and potentially dangerous.

Researchers, especially those who are publicly funded and/or publish, hold a public trust. Certainly, researchers hold a trust to use public funds wisely. Unfortunately, published research, even bad published research, is used to promote non-science agendas. The term “tobacco science” gets thrown around a lot, but the fact is that sometimes journal publications are less about reporting results as making a political or business statement. This happens for both “big pharma” and for “little pharma“. The harm from research fraud, or even just heavily biased research, is not limited to medicine. But I would posit that the most harm is done in the area of medical research.

As an American, I will be only an observer in if/how the UK pursues regulation of research integrity. However, the damage from research fraud knows no boundaries. I don’t know if there is an optimal solution which reduces the damage of research fraud through regulation while still promoting the freedom of self-direction for researcher. Is there a need? I’d say yes. Taking the Wakefield affair as an example, there may be few examples of really damaging fraudulent research, but the damage of even these few examples can be very great.

8 Responses to “Scientific fraud in the UK: The time has come for regulation”

  1. Julian Frost August 3, 2011 at 09:42 #

    I actually agree with the idea of oversight. The problem is that the system is set up to catch mistakes, not deliberate fraud. It is thus possible for a fraudster like Wakefield to escape detection for years.
    I suppose the real issue is how to set up an oversight mechanism to catch dishonesty that doesn’t harm genuine research that returns unexpected results.

  2. daedalus2u August 3, 2011 at 13:17 #

    Any system that tries to enforce integrity by sprinkling oversight onto the scientific process is going to fail. If you want to make the whole process more robust against fraud, you have to change the whole process.

    It really does come down to funding. Money spent on oversight is money that can’t be spent on doing science. Oversight can be used as a weapon too. In the US, there have been AGW denialists in positions of political power who have gone after researchers who have produced results they don’t like.

    The problem is that (as Mr Deer says), people have all different degrees of integrity. That includes those who would be put in charge of scientific oversight. Who will watch them? Distinguishing between honest error (which is extremely common in science) and deliberate fraud is not always easy. Destroying a scientist’s career because they made an honest error is unacceptable. Rewarding the watchers by the number of cases they catch and prosecute is a recipe for over zealousness.

    Investigating a suspected case with enough rigor to determine if it is fraud or error or correct will cost more than duplicating the research several times over. Duplicating the research several times over will do much more than catch fraud, it will also catch honest error and will provide greater insight into the science being investigated.

  3. Chris August 3, 2011 at 17:10 #

    I recently listened to the This Week in Virology podcast, and one of them, Rich Condit, mentioned that very few people realized that in the same issue of the Lancet as Wakefield’s now retracted paper was an editorial that was explained how it was wrong. He got the Lancet to remove both from behind the pay wall, and they are available by registering. It is explained here:

    It goes to show that there were very serious questions at the very beginning on Wakefield’s research. Including this 1999 paper from someone at the same Royal Free Hospital:

    Lancet. 1999 Jun 12;353(9169):2026-9.
    Autism and measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine: no epidemiological evidence for a causal association.
    Taylor B, Miller E, Farrington CP, Petropoulos MC, Favot-Mayaud I, Li J, Waight PA.
    Department of Community Child Health, Royal Free and University College Medical School, University College London, UK.

    It seems that when so many red flags go up so early, it should not have taken so long to find the fraud.

  4. stanley seigler August 3, 2011 at 18:39 #

    [LBRB, mr deer say] I leapt onto my hobbyhorse: fraud in science.

    COMMENT: the following posted on another LBRB thread…but seems more appropriate here…from previous LBRB post:

    [quote] Why are pharmaceutical companies getting the results they want […] there are many ways to hugely increase the chance of favorable results, and there are many hired guns who will think of new ways to stay one jump ahead of peer reviewers.

    *[one of 8 examples] conduct trials of your drug against a product known to have inferior results [end quote]

    BTW kickbacks was not one the 8 examples…

    i could not find text (eg, of 8 examples, etc) on the internet…and i am a slow typist…one may want to read: “agnotology, the making and unmaking of ignorance”…from which quote was taken.
    [end stuff from another LBRB thread]

    from favorable, biased, results to outright fraud: history repeats, even tho we havent forgotten, asbestos, tobacco science, anti global warming science, ms. dawsons promotional science, of course wakefield…and the beat goes on…

    BTW is there a difference between produced results and fraud…an old saw say, “can you be just a little pregnant…and an old joke say: in response to, do you think i am a prostitute…”we have determined what you are we are now negotiating a price…”

    stanley seigler

  5. Broken Link August 4, 2011 at 02:29 #

    As an associate editor of a scientific journal, I know that I am in a position to detect some instances of fraud. One example is self-plagiarism, which while apparently mild and harmless, is a red flag raised above those scientists who practice it.

    It’s only apparently harmless, because even if it “only” results in duplicate publications, that wastes the precious time of reviewers, editors, and publishers, many of whom are working on a volunteer basis.

    After that, it’s just a little bit of fraud. Republishing a figure with a different scale to prove a different point in a new paper, changing the procedure to make it look like it is a different set of experiments, etc. These are actual cases of fraud, but very hard to spot unless there is real interest in the science. And we go on from there, to cases such as exposed by Brian Deer.

    The real, fundamental problem with the scientific literature at the moment is the proliferation of journals, the pressure to publish and the meager quality of most publications. This means that most work is not significant enough to deserve anyone’s effort at reproduction, let alone a critical reading.

    When we focus on high profile papers, such as those of Wakefield, we ignore all those other mediocre (and worse) papers published in 3rd or 4th tier journals, which are equally bad. But often, those papers are latched onto by those with an agenda, such as the anti-vaccination bunch. And, yes, of course, real people are harmed because of these publications.

  6. stanley seigler August 4, 2011 at 04:04 #

    [Broken Link say] When we focus on high profile papers […] And, yes, of course, real people are harmed because of these [hi/lo] publications.

    COMMENT: and yes people are harmed by the focus on hi or lo scientific pubs vice focus on quality programs to support the daily lives of those with special needs…

    stanley seigler


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