Fraud inquiry fails to deliver

October 19, 2001

A wide-ranging investigation into academic fraud in science, engineering and the humanities has ground to a halt.

The probe by the National Academies Policy Analysis Group, which incorporates the Royal Society, British Academy, Royal Academy of Engineering and Academy of Medical Sciences, has published nothing since it was set up more than two years ago.

Some academics blamed a lack of enthusiasm while others described difficulties defining the investigation's remit.

Biomedical researchers, who this week put their own proposals for tackling the problem to the government, have been disappointed by the low priority colleagues in other fields seem to be giving fraud.

Sir George Alberti, president of the Royal College of Physicians, is to voice his disappointment with Napag about the lack of action. He said the issue had to be confronted across the whole of academe and not just medicine.

"There is nothing inherently nastier about a biomedical scientist than an engineer - all the pressures to take short cuts in research are the same," Professor Alberti said. "You can go on playing the semantic games that academics love but if someone makes up or steals someone else's results - that is misconduct and requires action."

Cases range from plagiarism, which Professor Alberti felt was probably more common outside biomedicine, to the fabrication of evidence. The worst cases could put lives at risk, while all damaged the integrity of academic research.

Peter Lachmann, president of the Academy of Medical Sciences and a member of Napag, admitted the investigation had become mired. "At the moment other academies do not regard tackling research fraud as a priority although they are not averse to the study. They decided this was probably a problem for medical sciences in the first instance," he said.

Professor Lachmann said the AMS had offered to develop a national database of fraud cases if it could gain support from universities and hospital trusts. In addition, it could act as a repository for good-practice guidelines and could nominate experts to advise investigations.

The Committee on Publication Ethics, whose success helped stimulate action across biomedicine, met on Monday to discuss the possibility of an independent national panel for research integrity. This would support institutions investigating fraud and encourage better teaching of researchers.

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