Research misconduct on rise behind 'walls of silence'

September 21, 2007

Pressures driving researchers to act unethically are rising, and universities are burying cases of misconduct to protect their reputations, a leading journal editor said this week.

Philip Campbell, editor-in-chief of Nature , told the World Conference on Research Integrity in Lisbon that "questionable behaviour" is "worryingly widespread", compromising co-authors and journals. He told The Times Higher that some scientists are responding to increasing accountability demands by cutting corners in their work. "There is no question that the pressure on scientists to produce papers at a certain frequency has increased."

Scientists who do cheat "aren't crazy - they often seem to believe they are fabricating the right answer, perhaps in order to get the job done quicker," Dr Campbell said at the conference.

They are often able to escape detection because co-workers do not insist on checks or transparent record-keeping. Collaborators should protect themselves by identifying "authors who take particular responsibility for integrity", he suggested.

Some universities are burying cases of misconduct to protect their reputations or to avoid legal action. Nature had come up against "walls of silence" in its attempt to investigate an author fired for fraudulent data in a paper in the journal, he said.

Editors and referees had to take submissions on trust and it was more likely that rival researchers would detect fraud first. But journals did have a responsibility to try to spot problems such as internal inconsistencies, Dr Campbell said, adding that he was increasingly willing to talk to institutions as well as authors if he suspected misconduct.

Nature published early work by Hwang Woo-Suk, whose later discredited claims to have created human embryonic stem cells by cloning were published in Science. "It's entirely possible that [Nature] would not have picked up the fraud," said Dr Campbell.

Nature retracted papers by physicist Jan Hendrik Schon after he was found to have falsified data and published a correction following a Times Higher investigation into research deception by neuroscientist Keith Kendrick.

Other journals are unwilling to print retractions or cannot afford to investigate a piece after it has been published, Dr Campbell said. However, he added that "most people have pride, and/or a conscience", and many universities now have frameworks or codes of conduct for discouraging misconduct.

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