05272017

‘Fake research’ comes under scrutiny

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The scale of “fake research” in the UK appears to have been underestimated, a BBC investigation suggests.

Official data points to about 30 allegations of research misconduct between 2012 and 2015.

However, figures obtained by the BBC under Freedom of Information rules identified hundreds of allegations over a similar time period at 23 universities alone.

There are growing concerns around the world over research integrity.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has begun an inquiry into the issue to reassure the public that robust systems are in place in the UK.

Stephen Metcalfe, the committee’s chairman, said it was vitally important that people have confidence in research that is paid for by public funds.

“Where research has been found to be fraudulent at a later point it has a big impact on the public – it leads to mistrust,” he told BBC News.

“What we want to do is to investigate how robust the mechanisms are for ensuring that research is ethical, it is accurate, it is, to a degree, reproducible.”

Growing pressures

Requests by the BBC under Freedom of Information rules show that at least 300 allegations were reported at 23 of the 24 research-intensive Russell Group universities between 2011 and 2016 among staff and research students.

About a third of allegations of plagiarism, fabrication, piracy and misconduct were upheld. More than 30 research papers had to be retracted.

Commenting, a spokesman for the Russell Group said: “Our universities take research integrity seriously and work continuously to help staff and students maintain high standards of research.

“The UK has a global reputation for the quality of our scientific research. This is not least because our members are rigorous in their approach to research integrity.”

Mr Metcalfe said the figures obtained by the BBC demonstrated the importance of the MPs’ inquiry, but they had to be put in the context of the overall number of papers published.

“We do need to have accurate figures that are available so we can all have confidence that the research is being conducted properly, and when it’s not, there is a system that challenges that,” he said.

Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors of universities, was asked to comment on the data obtained by the BBC, but declined.

Research retractions

There are growing pressures on researchers to publish their work and obtain grants. Retractions of scientific papers have increased about ten-fold during the past decade.

The blog, Retraction Watch, reports on retractions of scientific papers.

Co-founder of Retraction Watch, Dr Ivan Oransky, told BBC News: “We do not have a good handle on how much research misconduct takes place, but it’s become quite clear that universities and funding agencies and oversight bodies are not reporting even a reasonable fraction of the number of cases that they see.”

He said one of the most widely cited surveys suggests 2% of researchers admit to committing something that would be considered misconduct.

“If that’s a ball-park figure of 2%, well, the number of cases that we hear about is a miniscule fraction of that,” said Dr Oransky.

“Clearly there’s a lot that’s happening that we don’t know about. I would say that any steps that universities can take to begin being more honest and forthright and disclosing these cases would be wonderful.”

Regulation

Deliberate research fraud is thought to be extremely rare. However, if it does happen it can have severe consequences, such as risking public health and undermining public trust in research.

There have been calls for a UK regulatory body to oversee publicly funded research, based on models in the US and Denmark.

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Mr Metcalfe said the idea of some sort of regulator would be explored, although he said “there is no appetite for that in the wider community at the moment”.

He said the committee would also be looking at why there is so little official data on research misconduct.

Figures from Research Councils UK are regarded as the most reliable, according to a source.

The body, which represents the UK’s seven Research Councils, reported 33 allegations of research misconduct between 2012 and 2015. Of these, five were formally upheld, 20 were dismissed and eight are ongoing.

In addition, Universities UK looked at statements on research misconduct published by 19 universities for the year 2013-14. It found 29 allegations were reported, with seven cases upheld after investigation.

It is not clear whether the figures relate to the same or different cases.

Concordat

In 2012, universities signed up to a concordat to support research integrity.

Under the agreement, universities are encouraged to use transparent, robust and fair processes to handle allegations of misconduct.

However, they are not obliged to publish figures on breaches of research integrity, making the scale of the problem difficult to determine.

An audit by Universities UK found that about 35 of 131 universities published annual statements on allegations of research misconduct that were made available to the public.

The BBC investigation asked 24 universities in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland within the Russell Group, which focus heavily on research, to reveal figures on allegations of research misconduct for academic years between 2011 and 2016. All but one university complied in full or in part.

A total of 319 cases were reported between 2011 and 2016 among staff and research students. The actual number is likely to be higher as some universities did not provide full figures.

Of these 103 were upheld, 173 were dismissed and 43 are ongoing.

Allegations that were upheld after investigation included:

  • Falsification of research
  • Passing off others’ work as one’s own
  • Data in a published paper taken from other sources without due acknowledgement

The investigations led to at least 32 research papers being retracted as well as at least three PhD theses. These figures are likely to be an underestimate as some universities could not supply data on retractions.

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