Confront fraudulent research before it spreads

When credible concerns emerge about research validity, universities and journals must move quickly, writes John Ross

April 29, 2019
Scuba diving
Source: Alamy

Back in 2017, the Universities Australia conference was abuzz with talk of the newly elected US president Donald Trump and the threat that he posed to science. When the then UA chairman addressed the National Press Club in Canberra, I asked him about the threat from within: sub-par studies that couldn’t be replicated, and the risk they posed to the credibility of the entire scientific enterprise.

“It’s very important that they’re exposed,” he insisted. “In particular disciplines, a lot of the historic work is being questioned. That’s the important thing.”

In a later conference that year, I asked about the danger posed by outright research fraud. I got much the same answer: we find out about fraudsters because their colleagues expose them, demonstrating in the process that science keeps its house in order.

The case I referred to concerned Oona Lönnstedt, a Swedish marine biologist whose brief, stellar career collapsed after colleagues questioned how experiments that she claimed to have performed on Baltic fish – which had earned her a publication in the journal Science – could possibly have taken place.

She wasn’t at the research station for long enough, whistleblowers insisted. She didn’t have the right gear. When she was braced about underpinning data that was supposed to have been disclosed, under Science rules, she said the only copy had been on a laptop stolen from a car – the classic dog-ate-my-homework excuse.

What I didn’t know at the time was that Lönnstedt had an Australian backstory. She had undertaken her entire tertiary education, from bachelor’s to PhD, at James Cook University in Queensland.

While there, she had amassed a publication record that could only be described as heroic. By the time her PhD was conferred she had no fewer than 15 publications to her name, in big-name journals such as Proceedings of the Royal Society B, PLoS One and Scientific Reports.

The papers have snappy titles: “Disrupted learning”; “Ultimate predators”; “Damsel in distress”. They play to some of environmental scientists’ favourite themes: coral bleaching, ocean acidification, the impact of climate change on species behaviour.

The journal Ecology and Evolution carried two of her papers, both chapters in her doctoral thesis. The first concluded that juvenile damselfish completely lost their ability to smell danger signals in reefs degraded by climate change. The second found that fish’s alertness to “visual cues” only partly compensated for this lost olfactory sensitivity.

It’s important stuff, if it’s true. But Lönnstedt’s antics in Sweden provide good reason to question it. So does her publication record, extraordinary for a field scientist still doing her doctorate. So does her serial failure to disclose data.

Lönnstedt’s Baltic fish fraud came to light because of questioning by fellow scientists – at some cost to themselves. An initial investigation by Uppsala University cleared Lönnstedt and accused the whistleblowers of maligning her. It wasn’t until Sweden’s Central Ethical Review Board looked into the matter that the Science paper was retracted, with Uppsala eventually finding the authors guilty of research misconduct.

Similar institutional inertia surrounds questions over Lönnstedt’s Australian studies. Journals hosting her suspect studies – so far, formal concerns have been acknowledged about at least three of them – have been slow to publish these concerns and quick to deem them resolved.

JCU, which promised to look into Lönnstedt’s research in late 2017, is only now finalising an external review panel. This relaxed response contrasts with JCU’s energetic treatment of climate contrarian Peter Ridd whom it sacked after trawling through his emails. This month the Federal Circuit Court found that the dismissal had been unlawful.

While the university insists that Ridd was fired because of repeated code of conduct breaches – not because he was championing unpalatable views – it’s a pretty poor look when the university doesn’t display the same verve in scrutinising staff members’ more acceptable research findings that just might turn out to be fantasies.

Australian cardiology researcher James Heathers, an integrity watchdog and self-described “scallywag” based at Northeastern University in Massachusetts, tells me that academics sometimes ask for their papers to be taken offline after discovering inadvertent flaws in their own research. In such cases, journals react promptly.

But if there’s a whiff of deliberate fabrication; journals and universities respond at glacial speed, in the hope that some other researcher will come along and produce findings that corroborate the earlier work. “It’s much nicer to everyone involved,” Heathers tells me. “Why get your hands dirty when eventually things will sort themselves out?

“The problem with that attitude is that it doesn’t work. Some graduate student is going to get a wetsuit and a diver’s helmet and go out looking at something that’s been influenced by all this. In my opinion they have the right to do that on information that they can trust.”

Students’ time is not the only thing at stake. So is JCU’s reputation. Last year a ranking by data start-up League of Scholars branded it the world’s best university in marine biology research.

What's more, reef ecology is at the pointy end of climate science. Any hint of a cover-up plays into the hands of those who characterise the scientific consensus on climate change as one big conspiracy.

JCU tells me it’s taking the Lönnstedt affair seriously, probing her research from within and without. Let’s hope, for the planet’s sake, that it means it.

John Ross is Times Higher Education’s Asia Pacific Editor. He is based in Sydney. 

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