A certain shyness about research misconduct in the UK

Since Earth Pages was launched at the start of the 21st century there have been highly publicised cases of gross misconduct by researchers, including plagiarism, ‘massaging ‘data and even sabotaging the work of others, as well as lesser cases where publications were withdrawn or removed from journals. The most notorious have been from the USA, Japan, the Netherlands and a number of other advanced countries. But sharp practices in science are not well known in the UK; indeed I can’t recollect more than one case that reached the same degree of coverage as the most notorious instances. Yet, in 2009, Daniele Fanelli of the University of Edinbugh reported the results of her analysis of accessible information from the UK about this matter. She found that about 2% of British scientists, who had been interviewed or answered questionnaires, answered ‘Yes’ when asked if they ever fabricated or falsified research data, or if they altered or modified results to improve the outcome. Up to one third admitted other questionable practices or knew of them having been committed by colleagues. Fanelli doesn’t refer to more grievous matters such as sabotage or exploitation of students’ work.

The silence from British Universities on research misconduct has become such an embarrassment that it was a subject of an Editorial and a News In Focus Report in the 21 May issue of Nature . While there are guidelines that urge British universities to publish annual reports of their investigations into misconduct, for 2013-14 only 12 such reports have been published : of the 88 universities contacted by the informal UK Research Integrity Office, 30 institutions responded to UKRIO’s survey. These reports covered 21 investigations, mostly unspecified, with 5 cases of plagiarism, 2 of falsification, 2 concerning authorship, 1 of fabrication and 1 breach of confidentiality. Three were upheld and 3 are pending.

These figures speak loudly for themselves: misconduct by researchers (and academics in general) is something that the halls of British academe ‘dinnae care to speak aboot’. As the author of UKRIO’s survey observed, ‘It’s just not credible’, although many of the universities that she contacted claim that such reports were in progress. A likely story… We all know that the ‘filthy snout’ (Tom Wolfe The Bonfire of the Vanities) does ‘come popping to the surface’, but is buried in confidentiality by university Research Committees, leaving any victims dangling in a sorry psychological state and allowing journals’ peer review system to catch any perpetrators before they reach the press, which it is rarely able to do. It takes a case as severe as that of Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent 1998 paper in the Lancet associating the MMR vaccine with autism to see justice done.

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