How to Report Alleged Scientific Misconduct - Some advice from the co-founders of Retraction Watch

What’s behind paper retractions? (12)
by Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, Labtimes 01/2013



Paperbasket
Photo: zettberlin / Source: PHOTOCASE

When legal threats closed down the Science Fraud website late last year, other anonymous whistleblowers caught a chill. Based on the spirited – at times, too spirited – discussion on Retraction Watch, some saw the six-month-old site as a vital way to report alleged scientific misconduct.

Paul Brookes, the University of Rochester (USA) researcher who outed himself as the owner of Science-Fraud.org, says he’s learned a lot of lessons from the experience and shutdown but he hopes to resurrect the site soon in a changed form. From his comments, the hope is that the new site will approach the task of correcting the scientific literature much more dispassionately.

With that in mind, and to give dedicated figure sleuths and data investigators some suggestions for what to do while Science Fraud remains on hiatus – and beyond – we wanted to offer some thoughts on how readers can best call attention to potential problems in the literature.

As we have written in Lab Times, we support the work of anonymous whistleblowers. Although we acknowledge the inherent risks of such complaints – they may be wielded as vendettas or used to cripple competition – we think that they do even more good in helping to clean up bad science.

Contact the editor

So what should a reader who suspects a problem with a paper do? The first step is to contact the editor of the journal in question and ask how they prefer to receive such information, if it’s not obvious from their print or online versions. Some suggest contacting the authors first.

And here is where we want to gently suggest that following stepwise procedures – no matter how much it makes you gnash your teeth, nor how many times you’ve been frustrated by complaints that vanish into a black hole – will only help you in the long run. Leaving a paper trail – or more likely an electronic trail nowadays – will demonstrate to people further up the food chain that you’re serious and that you’ve exhausted all other options before you got to them.

So, contact the authors, if the journal suggests it, or send your material to the journal directly, if that’s what they recommend. With any luck, the journal you’ve contacted will belong to the Committee for Publication Ethics, or COPE, a group that offers non-binding advice to editors and publishers. The COPE website contains 17 flowcharts – available in a number of languages – for what journals should do in the event of anything from a dispute over authorship to the presence of undisclosed conflicts of interest in a manuscript.

COPE, by the way, is not hostile to anonymous complaints. Indeed, the group has stated that it, “supports a whistleblower’s right to remain anonymous and would encourage editors to respond to any allegations of unethical behaviour as long as there is specific evidence and not just vague accusations.” So if you’re trying to remain anonymous and get, “we need to know who you are before we’ll investigate this” back from a journal editor, gently and politely refer to this COPE quote.

Resist temptation to attack authors

Oh, that reminds us: Try to resist the temptation to take out your frustrations in personal attacks against the editors or authors with whom you’re corresponding. While you’ll sometimes still get the results you want that way, we haven’t seen a single case where it did much good and we’ve seen lots of cases where it gave adversaries an excuse – not necessarily one we’d endorse, but an excuse nonetheless – to ignore future missives. Stick to the evidence, and approach it scientifically, starting with your subject line. “Requesting an investigation” is much better than anything including the word “fraud,” for example.

If you get no response from the authors or journal, or feel that their answers were inadequate and the case isn’t suitable for COPE’s involvement, you should probably contact the institution and request an inquiry. Some universities have ombudspeople, others have research integrity officers, and some simply leave these tasks to senior administrators such as deans for research. You might contact these people earlier in the process than this, too.

Then there’s the U.S. Office of Research Integrity – assuming the research involved work in the United States on federally funded grants – which offers a list of forensic tools readers can use to evaluate the integrity of a paper (http://ori.hhs.gov/forensic-tools). If the work you’re questioning was funded by the NIH, and the institution doesn’t seem to be taking your allegations seriously, try the ORI, which supervises institutional investigations and can levy sanctions on researchers.

Request an investigation

Readers should also feel free to copy us on correspondence, although we would prefer it if you somehow made it clear you’re not acting on our behalf. Journalistic independence requires that we always represent ourselves as reporters when asking questions. Sometimes, knowing a well-read website is aware of the allegations can prompt quicker action, although we make no promises.

Finally, keep a paraphrase of the famous quote in mind: Never attribute to malice what can be explained by human error. You may have found a big whopper of a mistake in a paper, but that doesn’t automatically mean it was misconduct. We know this can be a long and frustrating process, and that cronyism can protect obvious fraud – but the scientific version of due process is just as important as the legal one.

(The authors run the blog Retraction Watch: http://retractionwatch.com)





Last Changed: 07.02.2013