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The Ego Has Landed! What Can Be Done About Research Misconduct, Scandals, and Spins?

Published:December 11, 2018DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amjmed.2018.11.034
      Science appears healthy on paper, but at what cost? Although the volume of published research doubles every 9 years,
      • Bornmann L
      • Mutz R
      Growth rates of modern science: a bibliometric analysis based on the number of publications and cited references.
      retraction rates are increasing faster.
      • Steen RG
      • Casadevall A
      • Fang FC
      Why has the number of scientific retractions increased?.
      Recent studies find that up to 40% of researchers admit engaging in questionable research practices—involving shortening studies to give more favorable results, and “spinning” negative results into positive findings.
      • John LK
      • Loewenstein G
      • Drazen P
      Measuring the prevalence of questionable research practices with incentives for truth-telling.
      Pressures are partly to blame: almost 60% of respondents to a national survey of scientific researchers in the United Kingdom reported being tempted or pressured to compromise their integrity and standards around scientific practices and reporting.
      Nuffield Council on Bioethics
      The Culture of Scientific Research in the UK.
      Factors around today's science create a petri dish for misconduct to thrive.
      Incentives to create and maintain success narratives via institutional metrics and rankings combine with individual hunger to “stand out” from the academic crowd, progress a career, or—more pragmatically—secure a scarce academic job or peer esteem. Allegations of misconduct can now attract national media attention

      The Australian. ACU's star academic Simon Stewart in sudden resignation. The Australian. October 3, 2017. Available at: https:/www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/acus-star-academic-simon-stewart-in-sudden-resignation/news-story/0f0a891d63be32cac8e6b3271b357d6e&memtype=anonymous.

      and are hugely damaging to public perceptions and trust in science, and raise justifiable doubts about the results of both future and past research. Even the normally conservative Economist magazine labeled the current ubiquitous system of scientific peer-review a “failure”, with journals seeking papers for publicity and “headlines” while regulations provide few checking mechanisms for fraud.

      The Economist. Looks good on paper: A flawed system for judging research is leading to academic fraud. The Economist. September 28, 2013. Available at: https:/www.economist.com/china/2013/10/03/looks-good-on-paper.

      This situation is compounded by editorial conflicts: more than half of journal editors in a recent study accept payments (a mean of $28,000) from pharmaceutical or device companies.
      • Liu JJ
      • Bell CM
      • Matelski JJ
      • Detsky AS
      • Cram P
      Payments by US pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers to US medical journal editors: retrospective observational study.
      What can be done to address this malaise? Authors, journals, and institutions have to work better together. Scientific journals form vital axes between scientists, industry, and the public because journals not only store and disseminate knowledge but also create the main scientific currency of commercial and career progression. Yet, the progress of science is too important to be left to a journal's inclination around trial regulation, especially when such vested interests occur and impartiality, transparency, and study quality are so important to health care decision-making.
      Reporting standards should be widened and extended to ensure that what really matters is the scientific content of those involved in a study, not the direction of its results. There is a pressing need for more standard definitions and protocols across our major journals that prioritize transparency in reporting and methods of clinical trials, including the publication of negative trial and meta-analysis findings.
      It is concerning that in many instances study data are “owned”, not by the scientists associated with a study, but the pharmaceutical company overseeing it—an imbalance with serious consequences for public safety and scientific integrity when findings (particularly when negative) are withheld from the public domain. Mandatory availability of open data provides the ultimate means to assess the validity of analyses and interpretations and should be considered the norm for publicly funded research. Trials carried out by industry should be led via a model based on direct partnerships with health care organizations, with input and oversight from committees involving independent scientists, professional associations, ethicists, and patients.
      Behaviors associated with research misconduct are cultural. As such, these behaviors express complex factors associated with individual volition and ethics, politics, and disciplinary esteem. Too often, research scientists have been complicit in questionable workplace practices around data handling and publication—subjugating the interest of science to personal advantage and ego. This not only reflects personal misconduct but also a scientific culture in which status is allocated primarily based on positive results over methodological rigor. Similarly, a cultural tendency toward ever-increasing numbers of authors contributes to status without responsibility. Too often, authorship is provided based on recruitment alone rather than contributions to study design. The rewards for doing this in industry-funded studies are considerable and wide ranging: including significant financial recompense, high citations, increased political and professional influence, and enhanced academic recognition both personally and of the discipline. Gifting individual authorship to particular individual clinicians offers disproportionate and unrepresentative reward for many large trials. Indeed, many well-known and influential personalities in the medical community have benefited enormously from such a system. Stellar reputations in the field of “research” can be built when actual scientific contributions are, at best, modest and mostly practical.
      Ultimately, to counter fraudulent and questionable research conduct, nothing can replace the integrity and wisdom of the ethical scientist reconciling personal advantage with public good. Incentives to cut methodological corners, selectively spin, or engage in fraudulent research conduct are unlikely to disappear. Yet, mentoring, ongoing workplace training, and role-modeling can play a vital role in ensuring that scientists are aware, transparent, and accountable, and that ethics does not get eclipsed by egos.

      References

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        • Mutz R
        Growth rates of modern science: a bibliometric analysis based on the number of publications and cited references.
        J Assoc Inf Sci Technol. 2015; 66: 2215-2222
        • Steen RG
        • Casadevall A
        • Fang FC
        Why has the number of scientific retractions increased?.
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        • John LK
        • Loewenstein G
        • Drazen P
        Measuring the prevalence of questionable research practices with incentives for truth-telling.
        Psychol Sci. 2012; 23: 524-532
        • Nuffield Council on Bioethics
        The Culture of Scientific Research in the UK.
        Nuffield Council on Bioethics, London2014
      1. The Australian. ACU's star academic Simon Stewart in sudden resignation. The Australian. October 3, 2017. Available at: https:/www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/acus-star-academic-simon-stewart-in-sudden-resignation/news-story/0f0a891d63be32cac8e6b3271b357d6e&memtype=anonymous.

      2. The Economist. Looks good on paper: A flawed system for judging research is leading to academic fraud. The Economist. September 28, 2013. Available at: https:/www.economist.com/china/2013/10/03/looks-good-on-paper.

        • Liu JJ
        • Bell CM
        • Matelski JJ
        • Detsky AS
        • Cram P
        Payments by US pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers to US medical journal editors: retrospective observational study.
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