Prepare or risk reputation, warns journalist who exposed fraud

September 15, 2006

Universities that have not prepared themselves to deal with cases of academic fraud risk seriously damaging their reputation, an award-winning medical broadcaster has warned.

And a key preventive measure is checking the managerial competence of laboratory chiefs and ensuring that research teams do not become demoralised.

Norman Swan, an Aberdeen University medical graduate who subsequently became a journalist and broadcaster in Australia, this week returned to the university's Institute of Medical Sciences to lecture on scientific fraud.

Some 20 years ago, Dr Swan exposed fraudulent research by gynaecologist William McBride, an Australian icon, who was struck off.

"Institutions tend to act to protect the powerful, and it's usually the weak and the whistleblower who come off worse," he said.

"You can get cases that are vexatious, but there are plenty of cases where there is institutional failure.

"For institutions to say it doesn't happen is very silly, and when it does, it's got the potential for enormous destruction."

Dr Swan, who was the Australian correspondent for the Journal of the American Medical Association , focused on Australian and American cases, but said he would be amazed if UK institutions were somehow different.

The prevalence of fraud was unknown, but it was unusual to find a senior researcher who had not come across a case during his or her career, he said.

"It's usually been traumatic, a friend or someone respected, and they're scared and don't often talk about it," he said.

There was anecdotal evidence of fraud occurring in labs that were not well run, leading to resentment and low morale, he said.

"Universities shouldn't make the assumption that just because someone is a potential Nobel laureate, he or she can run a lab."

Dr Swan said that good practice included numbered and dated lab books, and lab chiefs not putting their names on papers unless they had contributed to the research.

Universities should have procedures for a quick, confidential assessment that is fair to both accuser and accused, followed if necessary by an independent investigation, he said.

Research Councils UK issues guidance on procedures for investigating reported misconduct and is completing a survey of procedures in place at universities and independent research organisations.

Glyn Davies, director of policy and resources and deputy chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council, said: "We think cases of falsification and fabrication of data are not that great but we're concerned not to be complacent. We can't know, therefore we must be vigilant."

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