Push to publish 'leads to fraud'

March 24, 2006

Researchers are under such pressure to publish papers in top journals that they are being driven to fraudulent practices, it was claimed last week.

Leading academics argued that more researchers were resorting to scientific fraud - such as fabricating or withholding data - because of intense competition to publish research results.

The claims came as Seoul National University announced that it had sacked the disgraced stem-cell scientist Hwang Woo-suk, who has been at the centre of one of the most high-profile cases of scientific fraud.

Two landmark papers by Dr Hwang claiming to have made the world's first stem cell line from a cloned human embryo, were later found to have been fabricated.

Speaking at a debate on scientific fraud organised by the Economic and Social Research Council, Steve Fuller, professor of sociology at Warwick University, said: "Fraud isn't new - scientists have felt the pressure to massage results for centuries. But at this rate, we are going to find more fraud because of the pressure people find themselves under to publish."

Stephen Minger, director of the stem cell biology laboratory at King's College, London, said: "It's true that science operates in an increasingly pressure-packed environment, and given that a scientific paper is always an amalgamation of results, people feel forced to put in the best statistics and some researchers will massage or manipulate data to suit those ends.

The conduct of outright fraud is rare and the risks are so great that you question why someone would do it."

Dr Minger, however, stressed that, in his department, standards were tracked all the way through PhDs, postdoctoral roles and beyond. He said:

"We viva scientists every six months, run courses on plagiarism and ethics and if they can't hack it then they drop out."

The meeting heard that a recent survey of young scientists in Minneapolis in the US, had found that 10 per cent admitted withholding experimental details if they cast doubt on a paper. One in eight admitted overlooking questionable data.

Michael Banner, director of the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum, based at Edinburgh University, said: "We have to approach these developments with optimism, but also with caution. Science fraud is a particularly worrying, if rare, threat to progress in biomedicine."

Ian Gibson, MP for Norwich South, said: "Our current way of training and evaluating scientists encourages fraud."

Last year, a report in the journal Nature revealed that a third of postdoctoral researchers in the US had admitted to some form of research misconduct.

The results came from a postal survey answered by more than 3,200 scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health. Researchers said that they had committed transgressions of research standards, including failing to disclose commercial links, overlooking colleagues' use of flawed data, and using other people's ideas without giving credit.

Dr Hwang's dismissal by Seoul National was announced following a disciplinary meeting. Six other professors were suspended or had their pay cut by the institution.

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