Fraud, not error, is why two thirds of biomedical papers are withdrawn

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: (Published 02 October 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e6658

Re: Fraud, not error, is why two thirds of biomedical papers are withdrawn

The fast advancement in science and technology may encounter several opportunities as well as numerous threats.

A recent published study in Malaysia elaborated strategies to minimize misconduct in institutes of higher learning. The authors believe that the main reason of research misconduct is pride, greed, fear and arrogance. They recommend that scientists focus more on the attainment of knowledge and keep their ambitions as separate as possible from their scientific research. It is universally acknowledged that it can be difficult to suppress human frailties when the rewards are potentially so significant, i.e. the acknowledgment of “brilliant” scientific achievement. For that reason, it is imperative that the international authorities impress upon and work with the universities to institute governmental strategies to develop widespread academic standards since it is difficult for growing universities to police misconduct on their own (1).

According to Nature, “many people in science would rather not talk about the problem of research misconduct, much less act on it. It is much easier to shuffle miscreants out of the side door with vague references and a promise of silence, effectively pushing the problem somewhere else, and onto someone else” (2). This is a serious charge which is unfortunately true. In the US, the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) is one of the bodies concerned with research integrity and monitoring science misconduct. In the UK, Australia, Japan, and other countries, higher national regulatory bodies exist to supervise the reliability and validity of research in the universities by instituting national strategies against behavior of this nature. Unlike Malaysia, which is still evolving academically, these nations have long had practice dealing with conduct unbecoming to a researcher, graduate student or faculty members. They have developed policies, procedures and regulations related to the detection, investigation, and prevention of research misconduct. Thus the review and monitoring of research misconduct are an integral component of most of the research centers in the world.

Despite these measures, the investigation of plagiarism and other misconduct remains fraught with complexity. If the accused doesn’t accept the outcome, universities have the option of taking legal action against the accusers, the investigators or the academic entity in question. In these situations, however unfortunate, some senior academic officials will opt for the easiest path, rather than the most virtuous one. In some cases, an errant academic may be encouraged to leave an institution without full public disclosure of the occasion (3).

In the current academic world, scientific misconduct especially in biomedical sciences has become a crucial public policy issue that needs specific international strategies and punitive consequences for those who publish academic work without integrity. It is a must that assume all the academic publications written by students and their supervisors are true and honest. At the same time, there should be neutrality and fairness in decision-making. The experiences and strategies against scientific misconduct of other countries could be used as templates for national policies. It is generally known that experiences of countries are such that handling of these issues is policy-driven and performed in an open and clear manner. There will likely be a higher degree of success when all concerned feel certain that the information being presented is without any falsification or bias of any kind. Reports show that the existence of these supervising organizations still puts some countries in an enhanced status to police misconduct than most other nations that ignore the issue rather than solving it systemically.

It is imperative that national policies be created to prevent science misconduct. As the former experiences have shown, fraudulent activity subsides when policy makers and programmers created strategies within their universities that both informed and enforced researchers and lecturers aware the consequences of research misconduct.

In conclusion, if universities continue to aspire to be outstanding research universities then there should implant immediate and clear national policies on research ethics practices among the university’s faculty and trainees.

1. Amin, L., Zainal, S. Z., Hassan, Z., & Ibrahim, M. H. Factors Contributing to Research Misconducts. The Social Sciences 2012; 7:283-288.
2. Face up to fraud, Nature January 2012; 481: 237–238
3. Policing integrity, Nature May 2005; 435: 248

Competing interests: No competing interests

08 January 2013
Reza Gharebaghi
Former Medical Officer
Universiti Sains Malaysia
Department of Ophthalmology, School of Medical Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Kubang Kerian, Kelantan, Malaysia