Institutional research misconduct

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d7284 (Published 9 November 2011)
Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d7284

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In my editorial(1) I said that I had written to Andrew Miller MP, chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee. I asked him to investigate UCL's institutional failings in relation to the MMR scare if UCL failed to announce an independent investigation. He replied the same day(http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-sele...) saying that this was not within his remit and suggesting that I refer the matter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England. HEFCE is responsible for ensuring academic standards in publicly funded bodies. Last week I wrote to HEFCE's chair, Tim Melville-Ross, and chief executive, Alan Langlands, asking them to take the matter up. I have not yet received a reply. Meanwhile, UCL has issued a statement (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/1111/111110-ucl-response-to-BMJ-...) saying that it will announce a formal review into matters relating to Wakefield's tenure by the end of the year. We will continue to follow developments.

1. Godlee F. Institutional research misconduct. BMJ 2011;343:d7284.

Competing interests: I am the editor of the BMJ and responsible for all it contains

Fiona Godlee, Editor

BMJ, London WC1H 9JR, UK

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The BMJ’s coverage of the back story behind the MMR affair is a stark reminder of the dangers facing medical science in the 21st century.

So too, is the transformation of the BMJ into a magazine providing news, opinion, comment, letters, and obituaries, with research articles that relate increasingly to performance measurement, audit and reanalysis of previously published research, but little of what could be described as original scientific enquiry. Is this because the submission of such material to the BMJ has dried up? Or is it because the BMJ believes its readers are not interested in it? Or is it because the risk of being tainted by fraud discovered post publication is too great?

Is the editorial policy of “Britain’s leading medical journal” to stamp out fraud in science by not publishing any?

Competing interests: None declared

Desmond J Sheridan, Emeritus Professor of Cardiology

Imperial College London

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Losing sight of the patient

Amidst the controversy surrounding the 1998 Lancet paper is a group of autistic children and young adult patients who for the last twenty years have suffered bowel problems – one focus of this wide-ranging controversy. Whether their problems are seen as constipation or inflammation, these patients endure ongoing pain and discomfort which exacerbates their already fragile condition.

Anecdotally (without research into UK prevalence) there appear to be many autistic children with ongoing bowel problems that can at best be managed but not cured. No research has identified why their bowels fail to function normally and what caused their condition. In a few patients this condition disappears. But for most the outlook is as uncertain today as when Professor Walker-Smith, the lead clinician in the Lancet paper, first identified the condition in the late 1990s. Without research, there can be no cure or improved treatment.

It would not be unreasonable, given the nature of the controversy – and the GMC findings of serious professional misconduct against the three senior authors of the Lancet paper – to ask if the impact of the BMJ’s recent, and Brian Deer's much longer, campaign against the authors has resulted in deterring other clinicians and scientists from investigating this controversial condition. Could the BMJ ensure parents of autistic children that UK research investigating the co-morbidity of autism and bowel disease continues today as before? Even better could it publish a list of currently active UK research projects into this co-morbidity? Or is the BMJ in danger of losing sight of the patient in its crusade to ensure no doctor commits the errors it charges the Lancet authors with?

Competing interests: father of autistic child

Martin Hewitt, retired

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Dear Editor,

Research misconduct is also when one uses University research funds and EU grants to buy luxury cars and houses. [9] Extreme moral atrocities of this kind have only occurred in Greece, but transparency in fund distribution is essential for every Research Institution.

Monthly detailed reports must be rendered obligatory, if one does not want to reduce the level of research to that of Greece, where there exists no strategy[8], no formal standards[7], no evaluation procedures[6], no transparency [4] [1], no evaluation of research staff [3][2], no ranking body[2], but instead pervades heavy bureaucracy[1] and governmental populism distributing professorships [2] [3].

References

[1] A rapid review of the Greek research and development system,
Jonathan Grant, Tom Ling, Dimitris Potoglou, Deirdre May Culley, DB-631-MEGR, September 2011,
prepared by RAND Europe for the Greek Ministry of Education, Lifelong Learning and Religious Affairs.

http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/documented_briefings/2011/RAND...

[2] Liza Tsaliki and Despina Chronaki
Contribution to the European report:
Stald, G. and Haddon, L. (2008) Cross-Cultural Contexts of Research: Factors Influencing the
Study of Children and the Internet in Europe. A report for the EC Safer Internet Plus Programme, 2008.

[3] European Journal of Education, Vol. 29, No. 3, 1994, Stephanos Pesmazoglu.

[4] A Comparative Assessment of Greek Universities' Efficiency Using Quantitative Analysis, Maria Katharaki, George Katharakis, International Journal of Educational Research, Volume 49, Issues 4-5, 2010, Pages 115-128

http://uoa.academia.edu/MariaKatharaki/Papers/414526/A_Comparative_Asses...

[6] OECD JOURNAL ON BUDGETING – Volume 3 – No. 4 – ISSN 1608-7143 – OECD 2003

http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/2/54/43494478.pdf

[7] Hellenic Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, External evaluation report

http://www.scribd.com/doc/59934740/TUC-ECE-External-Evaluation-Report-Ju...

[8] Research-Country profile: Greece, from UCL

http://www.ucl.ac.uk/public-health/STEPS_folder/Greece_STEPS_countryprof...

[9] http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110708/opinion/Greece-Bailou...

Competing interests: None declared

Stavros Saripanidis, Consultant in Obstetrics and Gynaecology

Private Surgery, Thessaloniki, Greece

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Your editorial “Institutional research misconduct”1 offers a wake up call for academia about the “ethical climate” of institutions of higher learning that creates fertile ground for and sustains research misconduct. Institutions create the setting – the environment - within which researchers comprehend moral meaning of research integrity. What is perceived and considered as wrong and unacceptable – beyond the limits of ethical behaviour - in a particular institutional setting depends, among others, on the prevailing “culture” of the institution. If and when the institutions formulate and practice a no nonsense policy of zero tolerance toward unethical practice at every level – from laboratory to the grants office of the institutions – researchers get the message that institutions walk the walk, take ethics seriously, which reduces the unethical behaviour among the researchers.

In the face of successive revelations this year of unethical practices2 and research fraud3 in diverse fields in a number of universities, academia needs to start addressing the unpleasant questions as to whether and why the number of peer-reviewed publications and volume of research funding should remain the best “objective” criteria of judging the worth of an academician and researcher. Further, the policy that public institutions of higher learning have promoted in recent decades with more funding from and closer ties with the for-profit biomedical industry demands scrutiny, if not rejection. Goddess of Knowledge (Saraswati) and Goddess of Wealth (Lakshmi), in Hindu mythology, have not been very friendly to each other – perhaps the age-old wisdom has something to offer to the academia today.

References:

1. Godlee F. Institutional research misconduct. BMJ 2011;343:d7284.

2. Editors-in-Chief Statement Regarding Published Clinical Trials Conducted without IRB Approval by Joachim Boldt. http://www.oxfordjournals.org/our_journals/bjaint/eic%20joint%20statemen... (accessed on November 14, 2011).

3. Callaway E. Report finds massive fraud at Dutch Universities. Nature 2011; 479: 15. doi: 10.1038/479015a. http://www.nature.com/news/2011/111101/full/479015a.html (accessed on November 14, 2011).

Competing interests: None declared

Subrata Chattopadhyay, Professor of Physiology

Sikkim Manipal Institute of Medical Sciences, 5th Mile, Tadong, Gangtok, Sikkim 737102, India.

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Institutions have a vested interest in ignoring or burying bad news about possible research misconduct. It is disturbing that even something as far reaching for public health as MMR has failed to create a national (or even professional) sense of shock or shame. It is doubly concerning that despite everything UCL/Royal Free have not set up an investigation and are clearly hoping this will eventually "all go away". If an institution fails to act in a case as high profile as this, what hope is there that they will acts in lesser cases? 
The Elephant in the room is that the MMR case is but the tip of an iceberg of lesser but still significant research misconduct. Most people will prefer to assert that MMR is just one rotten apple rather than an extreme example of a common problem. The only answer must be to have an independent body to investigate and report on research misconduct. But this will involve time, determination and money. It is hard to see who would be motivated to drive this forward.

Competing interests: None declared

Malcolm Green, emeritus professor of repiratory medicine

Lansdowne Gardens, London SW82EF

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The note at the end is odd - "Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed." Was it an oversight? Does an editor commission herself to write an editorial?

Competing interests: None declared

Andrew Herxheimer

UK Cochrane Centre

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Conflict of interest in science is a complex and many-layered concept, and none of us who publish our research can be entirely free of competing interests. However, the one conflict of interest that is orders of magnitude greater than the others is that which affects all areas of life - money. It appears to have been a key components in the Wakefield saga. It has been a major problem with the reporting of industry associated research for decades.

More recently , institutions and funding bodies have started asking the scientists whether there may be any intellectual property in our research findings. The successful forming of a "spin-off" company is viewed as a success. Collaborations between academic groups cannot be undertaken without the lawyers that represent institutions arguing over the sharing of IP. As a result the unpleasant smell of money begins to taint almost every realm of biomedical research - scientists cannot help to have their judgement clouded by the hint of profit.

It is time that institutions with the mission of teaching, conducting research or funding research stopped behaving like businesses with the mission of making money. Let scientists do the research and publish the results in the public domain. Let business pick up the interesting ideas and turn them into money. Let the government tax the profit of those businesses and plough it back into the institutions responsible for the science. Scientists whose primary goal is to understand our world a little better can then work free from a pernicious and all-pervasive CoI as well the tyranny of corporate lawyers. Scientists whose primary goal is to get rich can get a job in industry.

Competing interests: My academic career is dependent on regular publication in high profile journals.

Paul D. Pharoah, University Reader

University of Cambridge, Strangeways Research Laboratory, Worts Causeway, Cambridge, CB1 8RN

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For information, here is the link to the rapid response from David Lewis:

http://www.bmj.com/rapid-response/2011/11/09/re-how-case-against-mmr-vac...

Competing interests: None declared

Sharon Davies, letters editor

BMJ, BMA House, London WC1H

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Dr David Lewis's rapid response is available here:

http://www.bmj.com/content/342/bmj.c5347?tab=responses

Competing interests: None declared

Sharon Davies, letters editor

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