Doctors fearful of scientific fraud

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A national body to oversee scientific research and investigate allegations of fraud is urgently needed in the UK, leading medical editors said yesterday.

Patients had been harmed and the credibility of scientific institutions damaged by cases in which results had been falsified, signatures forged and research plagiarised.

Speaking after a conference on research misconduct held in London, organised by the Committee on Publication Ethics, Dr Richard Smith, editor of the British Medical Journal, cited a dozen new examples in which misconduct had been proved or was under investigation. They included cases in which signatures of patients giving consent for research to be done on them had been forged, consent from hospital ethics committees to do research had been forged and signatures of co-authors such as a head of department had also been forged, to give the findings more weight.

One editor had told the conference how he had rejected a paper claiming to describe a cure for pre-eclampsia, the life-threatening condition associated with high blood pressure in pregnant women, which he suspected was fraudulent. A straw poll among the 130 present at the conference showed more than half of editors had had similar experiences.

Pressure to publish is intense because it is the only way scientists can gain promotion, grants and laboratory space. Dr Smith cited the case of Malcolm Pearce, the obstetrician struck off the medical register in 1995 for falsely claiming to have successfully removed an ectopic pregnancy and re-implanted the foetus in the patient's womb who later gave birth to a healthy baby.