Scientific Integrity and High Standards Are Essential

By Mark Crawford

In recent years, there has been an upward trend in falsified results appearing in medical research papers—both as willful fraud and unreliable/irreproducible research. “Research misconduct is certainly more prominent in the media these days,” states Peter Swaan, Ph.D., professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Maryland in Baltimore and editor-in-chief of Pharmaceutical Research. “This does not mean that all scientists commit fraud. It is a small subsection of the scientific community. Fraudulent papers are like crime rates, they go up and down.”

For example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Research Integrity (ORI) reported 13 cases of research fraud in 2015 and only seven in 2016. The online summaries are peppered with comments such as “respondent knowingly falsified and/or fabricated data and related images by alteration and/or reuse and/or relabeling of experimental data,” or “respondent reused and falsely relabeled Western blot gel images,” or “respondent falsified and/or fabricated data for experiments that were not performed.”

Other cases of ethics violations can be found online at Retraction Watch.

“When fraud is detected after the results have been announced, the negative impact on the perception of the results of the trial in question, as well as on the public’s perception of the clinical trial enterprise itself, can be profound,” states Christopher McCurdy, Ph.D., professor of medicinal chemistry at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

These impacts include heavy blows to the integrity of evidence-based medicine, which often focus on the conflicts of interest of the pharmaceutical companies that finance many clinical trials. Others are concerned about the shoddy quality of medical research, which has been described by some as a scandal.

“Even though publishers are finding more cases, we’re also seeing greater efforts to identify problems and clean up the published literature, and a broader awareness of the issues, across the publishing and research community,” says Maria Kowalczuk, a member of the Research Integrity team at Springer Nature, a global scientific publishing company. “We’re also seeing more creative ways to address these issues at source, such as registered reports, which can result in improvements both now and in the future.”

Read more about the importance of accuracy, why scientists falsify data, the problem with lack of reproducibility, peer pressure in the field, and how pharma can help with ethics in the August AAPS Newsmagazine cover article, Ethics in Research and Clinical Trials.

MARK CRAWFORD is a full-time freelance writer in Madison, Wisconsin, who specializes in science, technology, and business. He is also the author of five books.