Scientists fail to tackle fraud

January 4, 2002

Universities must take research fraud more seriously and help lead the fight against unscrupulous scientists, according to the Committee on Publication Ethics.

The fourth annual report from Cope, a group of biomedical science journal editors, researchers and officials, reveals that cases still receive a mixed response from institutions. While some reacted positively to being informed of potential research misconduct among their staff, others were less cooperative.

Michael Farthing, chairman of Cope, said there had been much talk but little action from the scientific community in dealing with research fraud. "The perceived leadership void must now be tackled by the key employers - the universities and the National Health Service," he said.

He added that many people were reluctant to provide evidence for internal inquiries and that he had spoken to whistleblowers who said department and university heads had tried to persuade them not to take concerns further.

The report outlines proposals drawn up by Cope. These include an independent, national body answerable to a House of Commons select committee to scrutinise conduct in biomedical research. Those who transgressed its code of practice could attract disciplinary action and withdrawal of research funds.

Sir George Alberti, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said: "We have a need for a national panel to make sure that institutions behave sensibly, that whistleblowers are looked after and to train impartial experts, protect subjects and researchers."

The report features 26 recent cases of research misconduct. These include:

  • Case 00/32: two medical students claimed that 60 per cent of their colleagues had seen a test paper in the dean's office prior to sitting an examination. That year, a much higher proportion than usual received distinctions. After being contacted by a journal, the medical school said it was dealing with the matter internally.
  • Case 01/09: at a conference, an editor apologised to a senior author of a paper that had been rejected on a reviewer's recommendation. The scientist replied that he had no knowledge of the paper. It emerged the corresponding author had used his name several times without his consent. The corresponding author's institution said it was investigating and added that the person responsible had a "mental illness".
  • Case 01/02: suspicions that a study showing a nutritional supplement could dramatically improve the health of the elderly had been faked were dismissed by the scientists' institution. A journal became concerned after a statistical review of the paper was subsequently rejected. But the foreign institution refused to accept there was a problem. The journal is now considering publishing details of the case.
  • Case 01/03: a journal retracted a paper on the advice of the university where the work had been conducted. The institution promised to provide further details of the problem but did not. One author called on the journal to publish a fuller explanation as the lack of information made all of the authors appear equally guilty. Cope has advised the university to conduct an internal inquiry.

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