Lock wrote that he knew of two cases of scientific fraud “both entailing non-existent laboratory work associated with reports of drug trials”. He demanded tough action. None followed.
Godlee writes this weekend: “Whilst scientific misconduct is troublesome in any field, within medical research it is uniquely problematic. It not only harms the immediate participants in clinical trials, it damages the wider population of patients when spurious or misrepresented findings are incorporated into clinical practice.”
It is not just in medicine that dishonesty is well recognised. The problem is much the same in every field. Godlee’s editorial includes a reference to a 2009 study by Edinburgh researchers. Trawling surveys, they reported “conservatively” that 14% of scientists had said they knew of fakery by colleagues and three quarters knew of other questionable practices.
Godlee is not alone in taking this on. In an editorial titled “Face up to fraud”, the editors of Nature wrote last January: “Some fraudulent researchers might be sociopaths who don’t care about the rules. But many others simply believe that they can anticipate the outcome of a research project, and see no downside to fabricating the required results to achieve a stronger signal.”
The new 24-page “concordat to support research integrity”, with a foreword by David Willett, minister for universities and science, is meant to be the blueprint for change.
If its suggestions are followed, universities and other public bodies involved in scientific research will in future have written procedures in place to encourage the reporting of wrongdoing, and systems in place to respond.
“This is good, but much that is mentioned in the concordat remains to be clarified,” Godlee notes. “Who will lead and deliver these changes? Who will be accountable for them? Where will the money come from?” She could have gone further. Although stuffed with phrases such as “highest standards”, the concordat is, at best, encouragement, not action.
Godlee knows there is a long way to go. In 1988, Lock called for a government enforcement agency: a go-in-and-get’em approach to fraud like America’s.
The US Office of Research Integrity requires institutions receivinh grants from the National Institutes of Health to take direct action against suspects. That can mean labs being sealed, computer data seized and researchers interviewed under caution.
A year ago, a report from the all-party House of Commons science and technology committee called for a statutory watchdog to root out misconduct, similar to America’s.
“In the same way that there is an external regulator overseeing health and safety,” the committee recommended to the government, “we consider that there should be an external regulator overseeing research integrity.”
But this plan was neudged into the laboratory long grass. The science establishment has conjured up the concordat in its place.
One of the concordat’s eight headline signatories is Sir Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, the leading charitable funder of medical research. “Our vested interest is in truth, and nothing but the truth,” he told me last week.
“But who would have a clear vested interest in stopping research misconduct?” I asked him.
“The whole research community has a vested interest,” he insisted, “because actually research is about uncovering the secrets of nature.”
Seen from Walport’s heights, his trade is protected by what scientists showcase as “reproducibility” and “peer review”. To be really accepted, novel scientific findings must be repeated by others, and relevant experts are consulted on plausibility.
These arrangements, however, also benefit big businesses in high profit but low-profile corporations. Research studies that may cost millions — paid from taxes via funding agencies — are submitted free to journals, allowing them to cash in on untruth in some cases.
Peer review is also free, or at least free to publishers. The science, technical and medical division of The Lancet’s publisher, Reed Elsevier, last year ran a 47% operating profit margin.
Again, the taxpayer picks up the tab. With about 27,000 new scientific reports being issued each week, recent estimates suggest that the cost to British universities of staff time spent on unpaid reviewing may total £165m a year.
But if the science establishment and business see little threat from research fraud, new voices are now launching a challenge.
At the sharp end of the change is a website called Retraction Watch, launched in 2010 by two senior American medical journalists. Nominally a blog logging formal withdrawals of scientific claims, it has evolved into a catalyst for an outpouring of concern, creating a feedback loop of disclosure with no national boundaries.