Science has a dirty secret: research is plagued by plagiarism, falsification and fabrication. A new voluntary code is meant to prevent fraud, but it lacks teeth. So how can the sociopaths in lab coats be stopped, asks Brian Deer
In nearly seven years since being appointed editor-in-chief of the British medical Journal, Dr Fiona Godlee has won a name for upsetting consensus.
Publishing hard-hitting investigations alongside traditional research articles, she has challenged drug companies and professional societies like an old-school muckraking reporter rather than the editor of the establishment’s house journal.
Hammering out an editorial last week at the British Medical Association’s redbrick headquarters off Euston Road in London, she tackled one of the toughest problems of all: science fraud and research misconduct.
“It’s difficult to know how prevalent misconduct is,” Godlee wrote, “but there is evidence that it happens frequently.”
She was commenting on a voluntary “concordat”, just signed by a crowd of research funding agencies, that is supposed to outlaw scientific fraud but lacks the teeth to do so.
The science establishment’s consensus is that there is no need for outside scrutiny because, apart from the odd sociopath, given credence by an “irresponsible” media, science is above the kind of misconduct that has tainted the Roman Catholic Church, politics, the press and, of course, the banks.
This is a little like the church saying, as it did, that everything was fine but for a little bit of regrettable priestly paedophilia – or the press claiming that phone hacking was confined to one “rogue reporter”.
For too long, science grandees have refused to confront the ethical misconduct in their midst, which is driven by the need to generate research funding.
If the mandarins of science shirk a house cleaning, others will do it for them. In recent months, the quiet, polite voices of traditional science editors such as Godlee have been joined by noisy and knowledgeable – whistleblowers on the worldwide web.
Science, like other fallen pillars of modern British society, faces a reckoning.
SCIENTIFIC FRAUD is classified under three big sins. The first is plagiarism, best exemplified in Britain by the case of Dr Raj Persaud, the celebrity psychiatrist. He cut and pasted other’s work into his books and articles, and in July 2008 was briefly suspended from practising.
The second sin is falsification, such as in the case of Andrew Wakefield, the so-called MMR doctor. He was erased from the medical register in 2010 over what Godlee calls “an elaborate fraud” exposed by The Sunday Times.
And the third is fabrication, admitted only four months ago by Dr Peter Francis, a British ophthalmic geneticist working in the United States. He made up the results of work never done, leading to sanctions by America’s National Institutes of Health.
Science editors have been complaining about such behaviour for almost a quarter of a century. In December 1988, Dr Stephen Lock, one of Godlee’s predecessors at the British Medical Journal, wrote a similar editorial not far from her present desk.