Public or Private

(April 7th, 2014) How should alleged cases of research misconduct be handled? A new study shows that discussing fraudulent papers in public has a big impact on final, corrective actions.

Beating around the bush or going public with concerns about possible scientific misconduct in research papers? This is a question many scientists are wondering about; one of them is Paul Brookes, the man who was behind “Data integrity is a common discussion topic, and it is widely assumed that publicity surrounding such matters will accelerate correction of the scientific record,” he writes in a new paper, just published by PeerJ. His new study aims to put that assumption to the test, taking advantage of the mass of data, he collected while running his blog.

Until January 2013, Brookes publicised over 200 cases of fishy research. Most of those cases had to do with deceptive western blots (undisclosed splicing, re-use of bands or blots representing different experimental conditions). Then, legal threats forced him to give up his blog. With hindsight, this close-down wasn’t all bad. Brooke continued to receive anonymous emails, notifying him of data integrity problems in published papers. This provided him with a second data set of 223 unpublicised, “private” cases of possible scientific misconduct, which he could now analyse for their outcome (retraction, correction or no action). What did he find?

Out of the 274 cases Brooked had brought to public attention with his blog, 16 papers had been retracted at the end of 2013; a correction was issued for 47 papers. In contrast, only two papers were retracted from his “private data set”, a correction was issued for five papers. “For primary outcomes, the public set exhibited a 6.5-fold higher rate of retractions, and a 7.7-fold higher rate of corrections, versus the private set. Combined, 23% of the publicly discussed papers were subjected to some type of corrective action, versus 3.1% of the private non-discussed papers. This overall 7-fold difference in levels of corrective action suggests a large impact of online public discussion,” Brookes writes.

Overall, though, the numbers are very low. Most fraudulent research is still in circulation, continuing to foul the scientific record. Brooke suspects that this is because “many journals do not respond to allegations from anonymous correspondents as a matter of policy”. Anonymity is a double-edged sword, Brookes knows. “While anonymity is often beneficial for junior scientists (who may, for example, fear repercussions when raising questions about a senior scientist’s work), a purely anonymous system is also open to abuse (e.g., sabotage of a colleague’s work). A moderated discussion system may help to avoid such abuses, although, in the current fiscal climate, it is unlikely that sufficient funds exist to pay for moderators, who would necessarily have to be highly trained in scientific sub-fields.”

Despite still being far away from the right handling of misconduct allegations, Brookes’ study suggests that going public is more effective than keeping quiet. “The result should serve as an impetus to encourage further engagement of new media, to push for greater integrity in the scientific literature. In addition, the result suggests that institutions charged with addressing such problems do pay attention to online publicity.”

Kathleen Gransalke

Photo: Fotolia/BlueSkyImages

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