Sick notes and shadowy scapegoats: the excuses academics use to explain away fraudulent research results

May 16, 2013

Tales of academics using imaginary collaborators to explain away dodgy research results and fabricating life-threatening diseases to avoid investigation formed some of the most memorable moments of the 3rd World Conference on Research Integrity, held in Montreal from 5 to 8 May.

Ivan Oransky, founder of the website Retraction Watch, also highlighted recent research which showed that the rate of retraction of journal papers was on the rise and that around two-thirds of retractions in the life sciences are the result of misconduct, rather than honest mistakes.

But the increasing frequency with which research misconduct cases of all kinds are being unearthed says more about improved detection efforts than any decline in standards, insisted Daniele Fanelli, Leverhulme Early Career fellow at the University of Edinburgh.

“To me it seems obvious that it’s not that misconduct is growing, it’s that the system that reacts to it is growing,” said Dr Fanelli, who is the author of a landmark 2009 study showing that almost 2 per cent of researchers admitted to falsifying, fabricating or modifying data.

Dr Fanelli said that an increase in retraction was “the symptom of a growing solution, not a growing problem”. Speaking from the floor at a plenary session, he added that going beyond “the old attitude of dividing the world into good scientists and a few bad apples” was an important step.

“If anything, what research on research integrity has taught us is that [problems with misconduct are] physiological to science itself…a few are dishonest but others are simply mistaken or biased in ways they don’t even realise themselves,” he added.

Also speaking at the conference - a biennial round-up of worldwide efforts in research integrity - Sabine Kleinert, senior executive editor at The Lancet, agreed that the increase in retractions should be seen as healthy.

“I would say…that if a journal hasn’t had a retraction in the last five years then the editors are probably doing something wrong,” she told the conference.

She added that journals were getting better at making corrections to the scientific record, and that retraction should not be seen as punishment or count as a black mark against a researcher’s name.

“If it’s an honest error, institutions should be proud of the researcher who has [highlighted it] to the journal,” she added.

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