Cooking the lab books

The focus of concern about scientific standards seems to have shifted a bit since this piece on scientific fraud was written. There have been some more very high profile cases (still mainly in life sciences), but there’s more attention now to things like poor statistical analysis (many disciplines), and to results that can’t be replicated even when the original study looks sort of OK (most of social psychology, apparently). Still, actual fraud remains a worry. This short review dates from a period when there was a large effort to do more to root it out, and one long, tortuous case of alleged misconduct that turned out not to be – the Baltimore affair – of which more anon…

There is no point looking for scientific frauds, because the few there are will always be exposed by the vigilance of other researchers. Or, the incidence of misconduct in research is so low that bothering about it is a waste of time. Making a fuss will only serve to undermine faith in science and scientists.

These two responses sum up the attitude of most United Kingdom scientific institutions to the increasingly frequent stories about fudging, faking or fibbing which have broken in the last 15 years or so, almost always in biomedical research, almost always in the United States.

While the US has set up an Office of Research Integrity, answerable to Congress through the Department of Health, which has so far investigated more than 200 cases, the British have largely maintained a culture of denial. We have concluded that it is better not to enquire about research fraud because its incidence is not only unknown but probably unknowable.

Over time, it has become clearer that this denial is likely to falter, because of at least two things: changing attitudes on the part of funding agencies and institutions; and home-grown cases of fraud. The most notable recent case was that of Malcolm Pearce of St George’s Hospital Medical School, who claimed to have pioneered a surgical solution to ectopic pregnancy – in which the embryo implants in the wall of the fallopian tube.

For now, the assumption that fraud is foreign, and that we order things better, explains why the vast majority of the 230 references in this useful compilation are from the US. There is a brief but pithy history of the issues, and policy advice for home readers. “A continued insistence that misconduct ‘doesn’t happen here’ could rebound disastrously if more cases are revealed.”

The coverage is excellent, pulling together papers scattered through the journals as well as grey literature from the extensive US deliberations of recent years. Grayson begins with the scientific process, then moves onto the pressures on scientists, discussing both the vexed question of the prevalence of deception and the possible reasons for it. Then she reviews policy responses in the US, Europe, Australia and, finally, the UK. Each reference is briefly annotated, and each section preceded by a short essay identifying key issues and episodes. The volume offers a significant addition to the literature.

The guide includes papers and policy statements up to 1995, including the first edition of Stephen Lock and Frank Wells’s collection of papers Fraud and Misconduct in Medical Research. Lock, the former editor of the British Medical Journal has long campaigned for questions of misconduct to be taken more seriously in the UK, and has made much of the Pearce affair. The publication of an expanded edition of his book in March was marked by a joint editorial in the BMJ and the Lancet calling for a national agency to protect “whistle-blowers” and to investigate suggestions of research fraud. Lock and his colleagues are not going to drop their campaign, and this raises the stakes for those institutions resisting action. If they decline to take up some kind of self-regulation, then one or two more cases like Pearce could well induce politicians to impose regulation from outside. Research institutions who want to prepare for possible trouble, should acquire this compilation. It is not cheap, but the price of ignoring it could be a lot higher.

Last year US researcher Pamela Berge filed suit against four scientists at the University of Alabama who plagiarised her doctoral thesis, passing off her results as their own. The university had to pay almost $2 million to Berge and the US government. The legislation she used has no direct equivalent in the UK, but the rise of litigation over what were once “professional” issues does. Administrators be warned. (1995)

Scientific Deception: An Overview and Guide to the Literature of Misconduct and Fraud in Scientific Research. Lesley Grayson, British Library.

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