They did a bad bad thing

[This post is based on the editorial in the May 2011 issue — the full text can be accessed here, available for free to all registered users. We welcome feedback on our editorials in the comments section below.]

When it comes to research misconduct, burying one’s head in the sand and pretending it doesn’t exist is the worst possible plan.

With human nature as it is, the only surprising thing about scientific misconduct should be that it continues to surprise us. Scientists are human, so why should we be more surprised when they behave unethically than, say, those in business or politics? Surprised or not, we should acknowledge that scientific misconduct is happening, will always happen, and probably always has happened. With an increased awareness, however, we can all be more vigilant and perhaps better equipped to prevent it happening.

To give some examples of wrongdoing, in case anyone is unaware of its existence, look at the rise and fall of Jan Hendrik Schön. Or the less headline-grabbing, but still worrying, 60 falsified structures published in Acta Crystallographica E. Or the 70 questionable articles published by Pattium Chiranjeevi, from Sri Venkateswara University.

These are just three relatively well-known examples. For more, the interested reader is directed to Retraction Watch, which, contrary to its moderators’ initial concerns that they would struggle to find enough examples to cover, has averaged around six posts per week since its inception in mid-2010. Of course, many of these retracted papers are not the result of unethical behaviour, but a worrying proportion are.

Very often the reaction to the discovery of these cases is ‘Why on earth did journal X publish THAT?’. However, when it comes to outright fabrication or falsification, editors and peer reviewers must consider the data with which they are presented at face value. Beyond a healthy scepticism, there are analytical tools available that can help identify suspicious data, for example for assessing tampered images and crystallography data. It is, however, hard to see that these would have been useful in the case of the determined fabrication that Schön engaged in.

Journals have a much greater stake in cases of plagiarism, against which Nature Chemistry and other Nature family journals can use CrossCheck. This tool can check the text of submitted articles against a large database of published papers. As the publication ethics section of our author guidelines clearly state, “[…] when large chunks of text have been cut-and-pasted, [s]uch manuscripts would not be considered for publication in a Nature journal.”

Of course, journals also have an important role in many other cases beyond plagiarism and cannot reject all responsibility. Publishers should ensure that data is made as widely available as possible. The outcome of any action a journal does take — such as correcting or retracting a paper — should be transparent, freely available and disseminated in the same way as the original paper. Investigations into data fabrication or manipulation are beyond the remit of publishers, and should be conducted by the relevant institutions and funding agencies.

One of the fundamental tenets of science is that experiments should be reproducible. ‘Peer review’ is broader than the pre-publication assessment that most people are referring to when they use the phrase. The true test comes once every aspect of a discovery can be scrutinized by one’s peers — and then built on. In spite of automated data-checkers and text-comparison tools, physically and independently recreating an experiment remains the best way to validate data.

So what should be done to deter misconduct? A shared awareness of correct research ethics needs to be fostered and passed on to the next generation. This should be emphasized by formal training from departments and institutions, which must have their own policies and guidelines for ethical behaviour and dealing with misconduct. Most of all, it needs to be put into everyday practice and an example of high standards should be shown by mentors.

Ultimately, science and the scientific record is self-correcting but only at the expense of much unnecessary work and potential anguish by those prepared to stand up and put things straight. No-one should have to put their careers on the line — or on hold — to investigate and report deliberately incorrect results. It is surely far better to act preventatively by insisting on higher standards at every step of research.

[Since we wrote, re-drafted, edited, laid-out, typeset etc this article we’ve found a few more interesting links for you all. Firstly, Science Betrayed on BBC Radio 4 by TV’s Adam Rutherford (iPlayer link probably only works in UK). Derek Lowe blogged about a recent PLoS1 paper on misconduct. Finally, The Scholarly Kitchen blogged about ‘paying for impact’ – the Chinese funding model for directly rewarding researchers based on which journals they publish in which we touched on in the full editorial.]