Intended for healthcare professionals

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Scientific misconduct is worryingly prevalent in the UK, shows BMJ survey

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: (Published 12 January 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e377

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Re: Scientific misconduct is worryingly prevalent in the UK, shows BMJ survey

In recent years, the number of temporarily research positions at universities has grown exponentially, mainly due to the external funding opportunities that have increased. As a consequence, the number of young researchers with an ambition to grow into an associate or full professorship is systematically greater than the number of available positions. While recruitment and evaluation criteria may vary from institute to institute it is almost predictable that when it comes down to choosing a suitable candidate for the job the potential recruits will be measured against their colleagues and the merits of the candidates will mathematically be summarized in the number of publications produced, impact factors and citation measures. This is considered an acceptable, objective standard to distinguish the excellent candidates from the moderate and the insignificant researchers. Quality of work is also considered, but let’s be honest; the number of full professors that will be remembered for their excellent and insightful papers is very modest. The rest of us tends to be creative, that is, building on the genius work of ‘the innovative few’, who do not need to worry about being promoted or receiving funding for continuing their work.

Most of us, however, will need to attract external funding from European or national sponsors. A good amount of high quality papers is a prerequisite to be successful in such applications. And a successful application adds to your credibility as a researcher. If you are a qualitative researcher, you may face another handicap, e.g. there is the danger that qualitative papers or proposals may be judged less relevant to the broader population of users or readers, regardless of their methodological quality or the richness of data. We have made good progress in acknowledging the importance of qualitative research within the field of health care, but I haven’t come across many full professors engaged in qualitative research that have gained the recognition of the early pioneers of qualitative research; the Margaret Meads of our time, who spent years in a particular research setting to gain an in-depth understanding of their phenomenon of interest. These pioneers were to the research community what columnist now are to society. They broke with existing research conventions and their stories were considered rare treasures of insight.

Society has changed substantially in recent years. It has become more of a business model with a high emphasis on effectiveness and this model has been transferred to universities as well. Academic freedom has significantly been curtailed by the straitjacket of the expected productivity as measurable through all kinds of bibliometric tools. Is it then surprising that some researchers would be triggered to search for short cuts to survive the evaluation procedures imposed on them? This is not to say that we all need to become proponents of the Machiavellistic stance that ‘the end justifies the means’. Of course we have our academic deontology. We are against guest and ghost writing. We would all subscribe to the statement that it is inappropriate to ‘lie’ with statistics, to ‘make up’ data or to ‘adapt’ data. These are just a few of the short cuts that are currently used to increase a scientific output in order to reach the mathematical targets. As a master student, I used to be able to choose my own topic for research. That was twenty years ago. In earlier years, I guided master students just for the sake of guiding them. More recently, we started to engage them for our own research projects, in which we consider them data collection machines to do the work for which we do not longer find the time ourselves. I often wonder what it is that we lose in the quantity we are gaining. I have witnessed the McDonalisation of society, the fast-food generation. I now see that the same thing is happening to the field of sciences. We have forgotten that a thorough understanding of a phenomenon takes time and is preferably not cut into pieces to increase the volume of papers. We cheat on ourselves instead of questioning the logic and truth society imposes upon us. It is about time that we sign up for a slow-science manifest and reclaim our academic freedom.

Competing interests: No competing interests

16 January 2012
Karin Hannes
KU Leuven
Andreas Vesaliusstraat 2, 3000 Leuven