Six out of 10 Middle East-based academics taking part in a survey admitted to having committed at least one incident of research misconduct during their career.
Issuing questionnaires to academic staff at seven different university and research centres in the region, a group of scientists from universities in Egypt, Bahrain, Lebanon and the US found a high prevalence of reported unethical practices.
Of the 278 anonymous respondents, 59.4 per cent self-reported their own misconduct and 75.5 per cent reported having knowledge of misconduct among their colleagues.
The most common incident that researchers confessed to was “circumventing research ethics regulations” (50.5 per cent), including conducting research on people without prior approval from a research ethics committee and not obtaining proper informed consent from participants.
While 28.6 per cent admitted that they had been guilty of “fabrication and falsification”, such as making up or changing elements of research data, almost half (49.6 per cent) said that they knew of colleagues who had engaged in such unethical behaviour.
Just 5.8 per cent admitted to misbehaviour representing a conflict of interest, whereas nearly three times as many (16.5 per cent) reported knowing colleagues with conflicts of interest.
The study, “A cross-sectional survey study to assess prevalence and attitudes regarding research misconduct among investigators in the Middle East”, was led by Henry Silverman of the University of Maryland School of Medicine in the US, who noted that while there was much evidence surveying the prevalence of research misconduct in Western countries, this study was the first of its kind in the Middle East.
In previous surveys, respondents from the UK and the US in particular have been reluctant to report their own misconduct. A 2005 paper in the Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics surveying early and mid-career scientists suggested that just 0.3 per cent of respondents had engaged in falsification, with 1.4 per cent admitting to plagiarising others in their work.
When surveying researchers on whether they personally knew of fabricated or false data within colleagues’ work, the responses tended to be much higher, however.
A similar study by the Institute for the Study of Science, Technology and Innovation at the University of Edinburgh in 2009 found that 72 per cent of respondents largely from the US and the UK were aware of various “questionable research practices” committed by other researchers.
Speaking to Times Higher Education in response to the most recent findings, Daniele Fanelli, the lead author for the 2009 study, warned: “Survey data on scientific misconduct should not be taken as an accurate estimation of the actual prevalence of scientific misconduct.
“That said, this is not the only study to suggest that various forms of research misconduct might be relatively frequent in developing countries, and this hypothesis certainly warrants attention,” added the fellow in quantitative methodology at the London School of Economics.
The Middle East paper, published in the Journal of Academic Ethics, says that “pressure to publish to gain promotion…represents a major reason for research misconduct”. The authors also highlight a lack of ethics training as a significant factor, suggesting that educational initiatives in research integrity could help to improve reliability in publishing.
“The strength of the regulatory systems…might be weaker in LMICs [low and middle-income countries] compared with those in the West,” the report concedes.