First step when suspecting a misconduct

We are often contacted by people suspecting a misconduct in some research articles. However, our project, scientificredcards, doesn’t aim at assessing nor investigating misconducts because we are not legitimate to take such actions (we are simple researchers after all). Nevertheless, in such cases, we try to help as far as possible, for instance by recommending this person to agencies which mission is to investigate misconduct.

In case you find yourself in such a situation, we propose here a template of a typical email that you can send to the university in which research was carried out.

———————————————
Dear Professor XXX, President of University XXX,

cc Office of Research Integrity (ORI) /or_equivalent/

I suspect a possible research misconduct in publications describing work funded by /name_of_the_funding_agency/.

I have downloaded the publications from /name_of_the_author(s)/, currently at your University, and believe an investigation needs to be carried out in accordance with your Policy and Procedures on handling complaints of scientific misconduct, and any relevant rules and regulations of the /funding_body/ and /ORI_or_equivalent/.

The specific allegations I wish to make are:

1. In the publication /add_ref/ (pdf attached), it states that …

2. In the publication /add_ref/ (pdf attached), the figure …

3. …

Could you therefore please carry out a preliminary investigation to determine whether you agree that these matters warrant the initiation of an Initial Inquiry by a Review Committee?
If such an inquiry is carried out, it should not be limited to only these items, but should be extended to determine whether this is the entire extent of possible misconduct.

Could you also please acknowledge receipt of this message?

Yours sincerely,

/your_name_and_affiliations/
———————————————

It would also be possible to add in cc the editor-in-chief of the journal(s) in which the suspected paper(s) has(ve) been published.

You might have also noticed that the Office of Research Integrity is mentioned several times in the email. For cases in the US, it seems to be the organization of choice to include in your email. If another country is involved, it seems more logical to replace the ORI by its equivalent in that country. If there is no such equivalent, well, you know what you have to do: convince your colleagues to lobby and ask for the creation of a permanent structure which missions is to handle misconduct cases!

(february 2013)

Science takes position to retract an article

The journal Science recently took the initiative to retract an article before getting a retraction signed by all the authors of the article (Alberts, 2011).
Several flaws had been identified in this report published in 2009, and several laboratories, including those of the original authors, had failed to reproduce the results. The editor notes that “the majority of the authors have agreed in principle to retract the Report but they have been unable to agree on the wording of their statement”. The editors find that a forthcoming retraction signed by all the authors is unlikely, and therefore decide to editorially retract the report.
We think that this editorial retraction constitutes a transparent statement of a delicate situation, and a responsible and constructive attitude to ensure reliability of published scientific data. To our knowledge it is also the first time such a journal takes this kind of decision, that is retracting a paper, while openly acknowledging disagreement among authors. This is of particular interest as studies (Nath et al, 2006) have shown that retraction statement can sometimes conceal the truth about the reason of the retraction, notably when it is linked to misconducts.

References

  • Alberts B. Science. 2011 Dec 23;334(6063):1636. Retraction.
  • Nath SB, Marcus SC, Druss BG. Med J Aust. 2006 Aug 7;185(3):152-4. Retractions in the research literature: misconduct or mistakes?

(january 2012)

The Singapore Statement on Research Integrity: an international effort involving all research actors

The Singapore Statement on Research Integrity has been collectively produced by research actors worldwide, ranging from researchers, funders, representatives of research institutions and research publishers, who participated in the 2nd World Conference on Research Integrity. This constitutes a remarkable effort towards the development of “unified policies, guidelines and codes of conduct, with the long-range goal of fostering greater integrity in research worldwide”.

This short text states principles and responsibilities on which more specific guidance can be founded. Interestingly, it is applicable to all research actors, included sponsoring organizations and decision-makers who use research results. It constitutes a significant step to involve the whole international research community in practicing and promoting a responsible conduct of research.

Don’t hesitate to share this text with your colleagues !

 

(september 2011)

Funding sources disclosure and scientific conclusion biases

Most journals ask authors of articles to disclose their funding sources, for reviews or articles. This may look as a mere administrative constraint, without any relationship with the scientific content of the article. However, several studies in the field of health sciences have pointed out a correlation between the type of funding and the scientific conclusions of articles, showing that industrial support may bias scientific conclusions (Lesser, 2007Levine, 2003) . For instance, Lesser et al found that for interventional studies on soft drinks, juice and milk published between 1999 and 2003, 37% of non-industry funded studies reached unfavorable conclusions, vs 0% for industry-funded studies. Such observations therefore call for transparency in funding sources disclosure.

However, funding mechanisms can be complex, and this can affect the transparency of disclosure of funding sources and conflict of interests. This issue was addressed in an editorial of the New England Journal of Medicine, in 2008 (Schwartz et al, 2008). The authors of this editorial mention the case of nonprofit foundations housed at academic institutions, funded by industry support. In particular, they address the case of an article they published, that conclude that “the majority of stage I lung cancers treated after their detection by Computed Tomography screening had a favorable prognosis” (Henschke, 2006). The authors of this article reported that the work was partly funded by the Foundation for Lung Cancer: Early Detection, Prevention and Treatment. However, after publication of the article, the editors learned that the main contributor of this foundation was the Vector Group, the parent company of Liggett, a major tobacco company. The editors subsequently asked the authors to publish a clarification on this point (Henschke, 2008).
The editors therefore insist on the importance of making the ultimate source of funding clear to the readers. In addition, they ask “whether a study on clinical outcomes in lung cancer should be directly underwritten in part by the tobacco industry”.

References

  • Lesser LI, Ebbeling CB, Goozner M, Wypij D, Ludwig DS (2007) Relationship between Funding Source and Conclusion among Nutrition-Related Scientific Articles. PLoS Med 4(1): e5.
  • Levine J, Gussow JD, Hastings D, Eccher A. (2003) Authors’ financial relationships with the food and beverage industry and their published positions on the fat substitute olestra. Am J Public Health.93(4):664-9.
  • Schwartz RS, Curfman GD, Morrissey S, Drazen JM. (2008) Full disclosure and the funding of biomedical research. N Engl J Med. 358(17):1850-1.
  • Henschke C. et al (2006). Survival of patients with stage I lung cancer detected on CT screening. N Engl J Med;355:1763-1771.
  • Henschke C. (2008) Clarification of funding of early lung cancer study. N Engl J Med. 358(17):1862.

(july 2011)

a European code of conduct for research integrity

A new European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity has been presented by the European Science Foundation at the World Conference on Research Integrity (July 2010).

Although this code has no “legal” nor local institutional value, it shows significant efforts towards harmonizing the different national codes of conduct, and acknowledging the international characteristic of research. In addition, in this code, misconduct also explicitly include minor misdemeanours, inviting mentors and teachers to pay attention to it.

It could be argued that a code of conduct alone will hardly change the behaviour of researchers. The report (Fostering Research Integrity in Europe – Executive Report) also addresses issues such as the implementation of structures for scientific integrity, which is essential for actually handling misconduct.

Finally, beyond a code of conduct, questioning what can motivate researchers for having a responsible conduct of research, or what could counterbalance the pressures that lead researchers to misbehaviours, could constitute a complementary approach.

 

(september 2010)

How to clean the scientific record?

While handling a possible case of misconduct, how can the scientific community clean its own records? This is one of the questions raised by Jennifer Couzin-Frankel, writing a news in Science (August the 6th, 2010).

You can refer to the link above to know more about the context. But the question of record cleaning seems to be more and more crucial as the number of publications per year is soaring, and the ease with which we can browse the scientific publications, thanks to Google Scholar among others.

(august 2010)

Interactive Open Access Publishing and Peer Review

In the geophysics community, journals have launched the interactive open access publishing and peer review. This system has recently been described in details by U. Pöschl [1]. In brief, after a rapid pre-selection process, a paper is assigned to 2-3 referees and subject to interactive public discussion, during which the comments of the designated referees and of other interested readers, as well as the author’s replies are published. Referees can choose to remain anonymous, but not the other readers.
Among the cited advantages of this system, it minimises the opportunity for hidden obstruction and plagiarism, it deters submission of carelessly prepared manuscripts, and provides to the reader a wealth of complementary information, critical comments and arguments. In addition, in such a system, the reviewers get more public recognition (especially if they sign their review), which encourages careful reviews.

This new publishing system also shows how open access can change the relationship between communication of science and evaluation of science.
The author of the paper mentions a next stage of open access publishing that is currently being developed: the published papers could be grouped at different levels of relevance for different audience after public review and discussion. For instance, three tiers that have been proposed : (i) discussion forum (free speech, original opinions, immediate publication and dissemination), (ii) topical journal (final papers, with thorough quality assurance, and comprehensive validated information), and (iii) highlight magazines (condensed information, with interdisciplinary relevance and public interest).

It would be interesting to see how to implement such an open system in the different scientific communities…

[1] Interactive Open Access Publishing and Peer Review: The Effectiveness and Perspectives of Transparency and Self-Regulation in Scientific Communication and Evaluation.
by Ulrich Pöschl

(may 2010)