Charles Arthur, Science Editor, investigates a trend that is disturbing the editors of scientific journals.
The F-word is one that scientists and doctors don't like to hear. But increasingly it is becoming impossible to ignore the truth: fraud in the publication of scientific "findings" really does happen, maybe more often than anyone suspects.
At a conference in London last week, organised by the British Medical Journal (BMJ), about 100 editors of science journals heard calls for a national body to be set up and given legal powers, so it could investigate and punish researchers who act fraudulently. The US already has one - the Office of Scientific Integrity, which is funded by the government and examines about 100 claims of misconduct annually, of which about 30 are proven.
Do we need one? David Sharp, deputy editor of The Lancet, thinks so. "It's impossible nowadays to go to one of these meetings without coming away with another half-dozen horror stories of fraud."
Worrying news, especially when such fraud can have a direct effect on you and me, in our (usually involuntary) role as patients. Doctors led astray by fraudulent research could be led to try to reconstruct procedures that had never been carried out.
The most worrying of these was by Malcolm Pearce, an obstetrician at St George's Hospital, London. In 1995 he was found to have faked a study in which he claimed that a woman suffering from an ectopic pregnancy (in which the fertilised egg implants outside the womb, usually in a Fallopian tube) had the foetus surgically transferred to the womb, followed by a successful birth.
Had it been true, it would have been a breakthrough procedure. Other doctors would have tried to use Pearce's technique; and since up to 5 per cent of pregnancies are ectopic, and can be fatal to the mother, it would be a valuable advance.
But the patient never existed. Pearce, who also faked data about treatments for ovarian disease, was subsequently struck off the medical register by the General Medical Council (GMC).
A one-off case? Not at all. The interest shown in the topic surprised the BMJ, which had initially expected about 35 people to turn up. More than three times as many registered to come, necessitating a change of venue. Certainly, the number of fraud cases being uncovered is growing.
At this point, it is important to define what is meant by "fraud". Getting the wrong results by mistakenly using flawed methods, or misinterpreting the results you do get, is not fraud. Professor Lewis Wolpert, who chairs the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science (Copus), has admitted that the first paper he got published in Nature (a long time ago) was simply wrong: "I had used an unreliable technique to check the acidity of the chemical agent that I was adding to my sea urchin eggs. I was devastated when I detected the error the following year and realised that my results were nonsense. I published a retraction as soon as possible, but it still got into textbooks."
Equally, misinterpreting results is not fraud, though this has led to some vicious spats in which researchers who claim to have found new processes are subsequently accused - wrongly - of fraud. The latter requires knowledge that the results do not exist, and that what is being submitted for the view of the rest of the scientific world really is not true.
Professor Wolpert thinks that fraud is not common, anyway. He has cited a 1995 British Library report detailing 50 cases - a drop in the ocean of tens or hundreds of thousands of published papers. The OSI figure above would translate in Britain to about 20 cases investigated and six proven annually. It hardly sounds as though the fabric of science is coming undone.
But the eagerness of the delegates to attend last week's conference implies that the incidence of fraud is growing. Is that a consequence of the growing number of journals being published - so it remains at the same tiny percentage overall - or does it mean that people are carrying out more fraud? Neither, suggests Sharp. "I think more are being revealed, but it's neither one or the other of those two alternatives. Of course, hard statistical evidence isn't available. But what is sure is that more and more people are coming out of the woodwork."
However, there is light at the end of this tunnel of malpractice. "Classic" sciences, such as physics and chemistry, do not appear to suffer from the problem. It seems to be concentrated in medical and biomedical fields.
Arguably, this is because findings in high-energy physics or chemistry have to be cross-confirmed. If you claim to have found the elusive Higgs boson, it's not the sort of thing you can do without hundreds of millions of pounds' worth of equipment. That implies that any paper that gets written will suffer a hefty cross-checking.
But biomedicine is one of the fastest-growing fields in science, a scientific Wild West where the frontiers of knowledge are pushed back weekly. That leaves space for fraud. In Germany last June, two researchers, Marion Brach and her former mentor Friedhelm Herrmann, were suspended after Professor Brach admitted forging data in four research papers in the field of cancer research. She said she was only following orders - from Professor Herrmann, whom she said had drawn data from unpublished work he had reviewed by other scientists, and drawn together hypotheses and results to produce new papers of his own. Professor Herrmann has studiously denied the charges since they were made.
Perhaps more important than the simple scientific effects of fraud is its effect on promotion prospects. Between 15 and 20 per cent of studies listed authors who in fact had taken no part in the work; this was usually done as a favour to the senior researcher or head of department. (In Pearce's case, one co-author was the head of the St George's obstetrics department; he admitted he had not read the paper or checked the data before letting his name go on it.)
Because being published is vital to success - indeed, often taken as the single measure of ability - it has become crucial to getting grants, promotion and power. In the German case, Professor Herrmann has been accused of using his advancement, and his position as a peer reviewer, to build on any real work he was doing by lifting research plans and results from applicants and rival researchers. Again, he denies this. But even the fact that the mechanism is so evident suggests that it could be going on somewhere, even if it did not happen there.
The solution is simple, but takes moral courage: whistleblowing. It was Professor Brach who finally told a colleague of faked results (after, she says, threats from Herrmann). Drummond Rennie, deputy editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, said whistleblowers deserved protection instead of their usual treatment - which was to be hounded out of their jobs. Certainly, it's a high price to pay for having other peoples' best interests at heart.Reuse content