Scientific sleuthing: who should pay the plagiarism hunters?

Journalists and scientist bloggers poke and point to dodgy bits of literature using limited resources. Is there a better way to support them, and defend them against multimillion-dollar lawsuits?

September 22, 2023
A police officer speaking with a man illegally busking on the recorder, Brick Lane, London
Source: Alamy

The “plagiarism hunters” who expose fraud in the scientific record perform an important public service, but it is also one that typically receives little or no public funding. With reputations and careers on the line, this makes levelling claims of misconduct a high-stakes game, especially when the case leads to a massive lawsuit.

Take the example of Francesca Gino, the Harvard University behavioural scientist accused earlier this year of using fraudulent data in her studies by three professors who blog on a website called Data Colada. Last month Professor Gino hit back with a £25 million (£20 million) defamation lawsuit against the trio and her institution, alleging that her career had been “sullied, if not destroyed” by a “vicious defamatory smear campaign”.

Advised that Data Colada’s defence costs could come to $600,000, a crowdfunding campaign set up to help cover them exceeded its $250,000 target in less than two days. While Professor Gino’s case is yet to be decided, it raises questions about whether scrutiny of the scientific record – an activity that academics apparently value highly – can depend on the generosity of strangers.

“There are quite a few people discussing what could be some broader, more systematic solutions,” Stuart Buck, executive director of the Good Science Project, a non-profit focused on better research funding, told Times Higher Education. The professors behind Data Colada have public profiles and tenured positions, but many postdocs or graduate students lack the security to blow the whistle on misconduct, he said.

“That’s not a sustainable model for everyone. I’m not sure it’s even sustainable for more than a handful of people,” said Ivan Oransky, cofounder of Retraction Watch, a blog and database that tracks when scientific papers are pulled from the record, referring to the professor-bloggers’ supportive community, clear impact and international media attention.

For the most part, investigators tend to be volunteers or self-funded. VroniPlag Wiki, a German academic collective, has been outing politicians and others with plagiarised doctorates on a shoestring for more than a decade.

“It is extremely hard to obtain funding for research into scientific or academic misconduct,” said Debora Weber-Wulff, a professor of computer science at HTW Berlin and VroniPlag veteran. “It is considered problematic to be engaging in such research in many countries,” she added.

High-profile success is also no guarantee of stable funding. A Romanian investigative journalist and academic at the University of Bucharest, Emilia Şercan, has exposed doctoral plagiarism by two prime ministers, two former internal affairs ministers, two former defence ministers, a health minister and an education minister, among others. She has never received funding.

“I just received a payment for my journalistic work, and believe me the amount of money I received for it is very, very small compared with the effort and risks,” she said. That she and others provide an essential public service seems clear, but who should pay for it?

In September, Dr Oransky’s Retraction Watch broke new ground when its database was acquired by the non-profit citation tracker Crossref for $175,000, which will make the full listings open to the public. Its previous funding had come mostly as big philanthropic grants or individual donations, including a $400,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation to create the database.

Governments spend billions every year funding science. Dr Buck argued that allocating even 0.1 per cent of US federal research budgets to proactive fraud detection, random data auditing and replication studies would make a huge difference. The idea of a public allocation was also backed by Brian Nosek, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and co-founder of the Center for Open Science. He likened funding research, but not its verification, to “building on sand”.

Dr Oransky also agreed that research funders had a role, but was uneasy with them footing the bill alone in the long term, pointing out that for-profit publishers were “basically not paying for fraud or error detection twice”, referring to patchy peer review and sleuths’ unpaid post-publication efforts.

Professor Nosek said public and private research funders and beneficiaries, including industry, had a stake in the accuracy of science and it was “appropriate” for them all to contribute to a fund, which Dr Oransky said could also indemnify inspectors against honest mistakes. Support for investigators who get sued could also come from defamation insurance or a dedicated legal fund, as exists for climate scientists, said Professor Nosek.

People might specialise in investigating or publicising misconduct, but, rather than duplicating efforts, Dr Oransky suggested that investigators “federated a little bit” to share their resources, expertise and costs, because legal and security issues had tended to “somewhere between distract and destroy” lone fighters, although he acknowledged that their personalities could make them hard to marshal.

As long as funding is tied to papers, researchers have a reason to doctor their results. “It’s easy to commit fraud,” said Dr Buck, comparing research funding to money left outside a bank. For the time being, the scientific record will have to depend on honesty, proactive probers and the goodwill of strangers.

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