Whistleblowers need more support when reporting falsified or flawed research carried out by university colleagues, leading scientists have claimed.
Following the publication by the British Medical Journal of research suggesting that one in eight scientists and doctors in the UK has witnessed some sort of research fraud, a conference on scientific misconduct heard how junior academics were sometimes bullied into silence or had their contracts terminated if they spoke out.
At the meeting in London organised by the BMJ and the Committee on Publication Ethics (Cope), Peter Wilmshurst, a consultant cardiologist at Royal Shrewsbury Hospital, said that “institutional corruption” had resulted in a culture that “penalised whistleblowers”.
“I think the problem is that institutions refuse to deal with the problem,” said Dr Wilmshurst, who was embroiled in a four-year legal battle between 2007 and 2011 when a now-defunct US medical company tried to sue him for libel after he criticised one of its products.
He cited several cases in which whistleblowers had been discredited and forced out of institutions while those guilty of falsification continued up the career ladder.
Nick Steneck, director of the research ethics and integrity programme at the Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research, said many complaints were dismissed too lightly by institutions.
“Some set a very high bar of what the allegation must be - most cases just get ignored,” he said.
Observing a “disincentive to whistleblow”, he added: “Why do we put junior people in a position where they have to blow the whistle? Most senior people are aware of [the misconduct] - they know and suspect the same things.
“We should have a better whistleblowing process for senior staff.”
Evan Harris, the former Liberal Democrat science spokesman who lost his parliamentary seat in the 2010 general election, said that more independent oversight was needed because universities had a “vested interest” in suppressing cases of malpractice due to fears of reputational damage.
“The temptation to cover it up or not deal with it is enormous,” Dr Harris said.
“But it only takes one high-profile case where a patient has suffered for the whole of UK medical research to be put under the spotlight, causing political confidence and the confidence of funders to drop.”
Subtler types of research malpractice were, however, more damaging than those few outright cases of fabrication, falsification and plagiarism, said Sir Iain Chalmers, coordinator of the James Lind Initiative, which calls for better, more controlled drug trials.
The tendency of journals to publish only “successful” scientific studies with a positive result “created a bias in research, which leads to avoidable suffering and death”, he said. Failure to publish those studies that “went up a blind alley” meant that future researchers might undertake similar projects, wasting time, money and even lives.
Sir Iain cited the near-fatal human drug trials conducted by the German pharmaceutical firm TeGenero in 2006, in which participants were left in intensive care as a result of adverse reactions to an anti-inflammatory drug.
This could have been avoided if research on a similar drug had been more widely shared, he said.
“There is a much more insidious influence from minor examples than the ‘big bang’ examples that reverberate around the world,” said Michael Farthing, vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex and a founding member of Cope.
However, despite concerns that some professors were “untouchable” in their departments, the idea of a US-style independent external regulator failed to find favour.
Graeme Catto, a former president of the General Medical Council, said the presence of a state regulator would allow institutions to “duck out of their responsibilities” and “would have to have a huge budget”.
Professor Farthing said universities needed a more consistent approach to research misconduct, but argued that self-regulation and greater emphasis on prevention was the way forward.
Research Councils UK and Universities UK are working on a “concordat” to agree aspects of policy in this area but, two years on, nothing has been announced.