Leader: Clarity begins at home

Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and the UK's institutions and researchers must be fearless in shining a light on misconduct

August 23, 2012

Research misconduct is a murky matter in more ways than one. It starts with the wrongdoing in the lab: an overly ambitious and unscrupulous individual fiddling results, perhaps, to fast-track their career.

But the problems run deeper than that, with the UK's unbalanced libel laws and risks of collateral damage obscuring transparency on the part of both individuals and institutions.

This week we report on a long narrative that has played out at University College London, and before that at Imperial College London and the University of Cambridge.

While working as a postdoc at UCL, biochemist Jatinder Ahluwalia deliberately misrepresented his experiments, and may even have contaminated chemicals in colleagues' experiments in order to cover his tracks.

But these facts might never have come to light - at least not publicly - without the bloody-minded determination of Tony Segal, Ahluwalia's boss and Charles Dent professor of medicine, to get to the bottom of inexplic-able goings-on within his lab, and the boldness of the college in adopting a transparent stance that is too often lacking.

The details of the Ahluwalia case are set out in detail in our cover feature, and the issues raised provide much food for thought.

One is the implication for individuals such as Segal who find themselves dragged through the mud as the result of a colleague's misdeeds.

Segal says that the Ahluwalia scandal has dogged him in what should have been a particularly productive stage of his life, and that the stink inevitably caused by article retractions continues to hang around.

In such circumstances, he suggests, others might have chosen to forgo the painful process and subsequent stigma by keeping quiet.

"Most people wouldn't have had an investigation: they would have waited for the paper to be covered by the sands of time and the mountain of new publications," he says. "At most, they would have withdrawn the paper quietly."

A second factor hindering proper transparency is the constant threat of libel action when details of research fraud are aired in public.

It is striking that in this case even Nature baulked at publishing the detailed findings of a UCL investigation into Ahluwalia's activities, and UCL should be applauded for taking what must have seemed like a risk in publishing the outcome itself.

A third issue is the lack of a rigorously joined-up approach to dealing with misconduct within the sector. Ahluwalia had been dismissed from Cambridge's doctoral programme for suspected research misconduct in 1998, but this came to light at UCL only much later through informal lines of communication.

Taken together, the picture is muddled and muddy, and the recent concordat on research integrity, while setting out some agreed approaches to the issue, stopped short of requiring institutions to make details of investigations public.

As long as libel laws provide an additional disincentive, it is hard to see UCL's admirably transparent approach becoming the norm. But if it does not, it will be to the detriment of all.

It's partly about justice being seen to be done, but also about ensuring that mud sticks only where it is warranted and - most important of all - making clear exactly what research can be trusted.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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