Archive data to stop research fraud

August 13, 2015

Peer review may not spot fraud, but it is difficult to see how institutions might police research integrity without adding to bureaucratic and other constraints on research (“Valuing research rectitude”, Leader, 6 August). Effective monitoring of data collection would be difficult in many fields of research, and even if it were possible to capture all data from runs of an experiment, who is going to check that the researchers have not been selective in what they chose to publish?

It would be good if papers with poorly or wrongly analysed data, not to mention made-up data, did not get published; but in any case, institutions could require researchers to archive data and make them available for reanalysis should apparent errors be identified at the peer review stage or later. Of course, institutions might wish to protect themselves and so would be unwilling to release data. If so, then we need to work to establish the norm that researchers archive their data systematically or be prepared as a matter of course to make them available to other researchers. Data archiving initiatives exist (for example, the UK Data Archive), and some authors take advantage of publishers’ websites to upload collection instruments and data, although many researchers remain unwilling to publicly archive data for a variety of reasons that may have nothing to do with having anything to hide. Research ethics practices in fields such as healthcare may also inhibit archiving.

If data are archived, they can easily be reanalysed, and post-publication errors can be detected. This would strengthen the post-peer review processes, building on the work of Retraction Watch and PubPeer. To support this, journals should provide clear guidelines to reviewers to check aspects of analysis and should have policies and procedures for handling allegations of poor analysis and for making corrections and retractions. Journals should also make it easy for researchers to find out whether a particular paper has been challenged.

Stephen Gourlay
Kingston Business School, Kingston University

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