Spike in research misconduct feared after Covid disruption

Springer Nature-Digital Science survey reveals that pandemic-hit researchers are more likely to return to old data, which some worry could lead to fraud

August 6, 2020
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Concerns about a possible spike in unethical research behaviour have been triggered by a major survey of international academics that highlights the heavy toll inflicted on science by recent lockdowns.

Ninety per cent of the 3,436 research staff who responded to a poll conducted by Digital Science and Springer Nature reported that their scholarship had been disrupted by Covid-19, with 31 per cent saying that they had been unable to do any or most of their work.

Chemistry was the discipline most affected by restrictions, with almost half of researchers (47 per cent) saying they had been “extremely” or “very impacted” by the lockdown, followed by biology (39 per cent) and then medicine and materials science (both 36 per cent).

India was the worst-hit country, with 18 per cent of respondents stating that they had been unable to do any research at all, followed closely by Brazil, where the figure was 12 per cent.

“Those regions most badly affected are where infections are still on the increase,” observed Gregory Goodey, research analyst at Springer Nature, who compiled the data.

The results also indicate how many researchers have reacted swiftly to the coronavirus threat, with 43 per cent of respondents whose research could conceivably address Covid-19 having sought to repurpose their existing grants.

That flexibility might, however, not be a wholly good thing if too much non-Covid-19 research is displaced by pandemic-related studies, said Jeffrey Lazarus, head of health systems at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health.

“It’s great that researchers can change direction because we are far from getting out of this thing, but they won their grants because they had good ideas related to their research field,” Professor Lazarus said.

“For delayed projects, it’s often difficult to go back to a funder and say, ‘Can we have an extra £35,000 to complete a project?’ The decision-making process is often complicated.”

The eventual impact of delays to clinical trials as laboratories closed and patients went into quarantine is also big concern, explained Professor Lazarus, whose research has focused on health systems, HIV and hepatitis. “There are a lot of clinical trials that are in big trouble, but it’s not being addressed in any way outside the scientific community,” he said.

With lockdowns having left many researchers unable to collect new empirical data from laboratories, field trips or surveys, the poll suggests that more will seek to reuse data over the next 12 to 18 months; 65 per cent of respondents said they planned to reuse their own data, compared with only 54 per cent who said they had already done this in the past.

Those in earth and environmental science were particularly likely to reuse data, with 74 per cent saying they would, as were those in the humanities and social sciences, of whom 65 per cent intended to do so. Just over half (52 per cent) said they would seek to reuse others’ data over the next year, up from 44 per cent who had already used openly accessible data in this way.

While secondary analysis of existing datasets can prove fruitful in some disciplines, the reuse of self-collected data for multiple publications can be problematic, said Erik van Raaij, professor of purchasing and supply management in healthcare at Erasmus University Rotterdam, who has tracked the abuse of this practice in his field.

“I’ve seen as many as 12 publications from the same dataset without the author telling the reader this fact,” he said. “There are many cases where four to six papers are written from the same set, and some people even lie about it.

“It’s not just an issue of salami-slicing,” continued Professor van Raaij on the “bad practice” of stringing out a single publication into multiple papers. “When these papers start contradicting each other but not discussing the implications of this, that’s when it’s much worse.”

This problem may worsen as researchers seek to pass off old data as newly collected empirical studies, predicted Professor van Raaij.

“Junior researchers, in particular, are often in a triple squeeze: it has been impossible to collect data, and they have also had to spend time moving their teaching online and often homeschooling young children,” he said.

“If your university is not willing to recognise this triple squeeze and – my institution does – add time to the tenure clock, I can see people thinking, ‘Let’s pretend this is new data.’”

However, Simon Kolstoe, senior lecturer in the University of Portsmouth’s School of Health and Care Professions, thought the pause on experiments could have some positive impacts.

“Many scientists are sitting on quite a lot of data that they just haven’t had time to explore properly. So if people are stopped from doing new experiments, it may, to a certain extent, be a good thing,” reflected Dr Kolstoe.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Lab lockouts fuel fears of research misconduct

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