Debate on fraud in scientific papers continues. A complex and challenging issue for scientific journals
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A JAMA editor article titled Scientific Misconduct and Medical Journals focus on a scientific malpractice involving fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism in the reporting of research and clear define this practice, According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, “Research misconduct means fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results.” Other important irregularities involving the biomedical research process include, but are not limited to, ethical issues (eg, failure to obtain informed consent, failure to obtain appropriate approval from an institutional review board, and mistreatment of research participants), issues involving authorship responsibilities and disputes, duplicate publication, and failure to report conflicts of interest. When authors are found to have been involved with research misconduct or other serious irregularities involving articles that have been published in scientific journals, editors have a responsibility to ensure the accuracy and integrity of the scientific record.
Not much is known about the prevalence of scientific misconduct, several studies with limited methods have estimated that the prevalence of scientists who have been involved in scientific misconduct ranges from 1% to 2%. During the last 5 years, JAMA and the JAMA Network journals have published 12 notices of Retraction about 15 articles (including recent Retractions of 6 articles by the same author)7 and 6 notices of Expression of Concern about 9 articles. These notices were published primarily because the original studies were found to involve fabrication or falsification of data that invalidated the research and the published articles; in some cases, postpublication investigations could not provide evidence that the original research was valid.
Since 2015, JAMA and the JAMA Network journals also have retracted and replaced 12 articles for instances of inadvertent pervasive error resulting from incorrect data coding or incorrect analyses and without evidence of research misconduct. During the same period, 1021 correction notices have been published in these journals. The JAMA Network policies regarding corrections and retraction with replacement have been published previously.
In this Editorial, the focus is on a more complex and challenging issue—scientific misconduct involving fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism in the reporting of research.
The Role and Responsibilities of Editors
JAMA and the JAMA Network journals receive numerous communications from readers, such as letters to the editor and emails, that are critical of the published content. Most of the critiques involve matters of interpretation, the need for clarification of content, or differences of opinion; some address ethical concerns, some are frivolous complaints, and some include calls for retraction. However, typically 10 to 12 times each year these journals receive allegations of scientific misconduct. All matters related to allegations of scientific misconduct for articles published in JAMA and the JAMA Network journals are evaluated and managed by the senior staff of JAMA including the editor in chief of JAMA, executive editor, executive managing editor, and the editorial counsel. This provides a consistent process for dealing with potential scientific misconduct. If the allegation involves an article published in a network journal, the editor in chief of that journal is involved and kept informed about the progress of the investigation. In addition, when necessary, additional expertise is obtained.
Allegations of scientific misconduct brought to journals are challenging and time-consuming for the authors, for editors, and potentially for institutions. The first step involves determining the validity of the allegation and an assessment of whether the allegation is consistent with the definition of research misconduct. In some cases, when authors are accused of misconduct, the criticism represents a different interpretation of the data or disagreement with the statistical approach used, rather than scientific misconduct. This initial step also involves determining whether the individuals alleging misconduct have relevant conflicts of interest. In some cases, it appears that financial interests and strongly held views (intellectual conflict of interest) may have led to the allegation. This does not mean that potential conflicts of interest on the part of the persons bringing the allegations preclude the possibility of scientific misconduct on the part of the authors, but rather, evaluation of conflict of interest is part of the assessment process.
If scientific misconduct or the presence of other substantial research irregularities is a possibility, the allegations are shared with the corresponding author, who, on behalf of all of the coauthors, is requested to provide a detailed response. Depending on the nature of the allegation, it can take months for some authors to respond to the concerns. After the response is received and evaluated, additional review and involvement of experts (such as statistical reviewers) may be obtained. In the majority of cases, the authors’ responses and additional information provided regarding the concerns raised are sufficient to make a determination of whether the allegations raised are likely to represent misconduct. For cases in which it is unlikely that misconduct has occurred, clarifications, additional analyses, or both, published as letters to the editor, and often including a correction notice and correction to the published article are sufficient. To date, JAMA has had very few disagreements with individuals making allegations of scientific misconduct, although some have been critical of the time it has taken for JAMA and other journals to resolve an issue of alleged scientific misconduct.
However, if the authors’ responses to the allegations raised are unsatisfactory or unconvincing, or if there is any doubt as to whether scientific misconduct has occurred, additional information and investigation are usually necessary, and the appropriate institution is contacted with a request to conduct a formal evaluation. At that time, and depending on the nature of the allegations, the journal may publish a notice of Expression of Concern about the published reports in question, indicating that issues of validity or other concerns have arisen and are under investigation.
Involving institutions is done with great care for several reasons. First, even just an allegation of misconduct can harm the reputation of an individual. Individuals involved in such allegations have expressed this concern and notification of an institution increases the level of scrutiny directed toward the involved person. In these cases, institutions are responsible for ensuring appropriate due process and confidentiality, based on their policies and procedures. Second, just as JAMA receives allegations of scientific misconduct and research irregularities, so too do institutions. It simply is not possible for every institution to conduct a detailed investigation of every allegation received; thus, JAMA and the JAMA Network journals ensure that institutions are only asked to be involved after a determination has been made that scientific misconduct is a possibility and for which the authors have not adequately responded to the concerns raised.
The JAMA’s editorial concluded this relevant matter on ethics in sceintific research, Allegations of scientific misconduct are challenging. Not all such allegations warrant investigation, but some require extensive evaluation. JAMA reviews its approach to allegations of scientific misconduct on a regular basis to ensure that the process is timely, objective, and fair to authors and their institutions, and results in evidence that will directly address the allegations of misconduct. Ultimately, authors, journals, and institutions have an important obligation to ensure the accuracy of the scientific record. By responding appropriately to concerns about scientific misconduct, and taking necessary actions based on evaluation of these concerns, such as corrections, retractions with replacement, notices of Expression of Concern, and Retractions, JAMA and the JAMA Network journals will continue to fulfill the responsibilities of ensuring the validity and integrity of the scientific record (see entire article JAMA Editorial, November 20, 2018).
More about fraude and retractions in scientific papers
On the other hand, Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston have recommended the retraction of 31 articles by a prestigious former investigator at these institutions. The institutions say that the articles “included falsified and/or fabricated data”. In this specific case, it refers to research by Piero Anversa, who had published an article in which he said that he had found stem cells in the heart that could be used to regenerate cardiac muscle, but in 2014, the academic authorities at Harvard shelved Anversa’s publications after one of his articles was retracted. Now it seems that they have retracted other articles, although the academic institutions have not made public the lists of authors affected (See more SCIENCE 10/19/2018) ).