Holes in the network

Conference in Lisbon discusses the challenge of preventing fraud in research carried out with international cooperation

HÉLIO DE ALMEIDANearly 300 people from 52 countries, including scientists, editors of academic journals, authorities and university managers met for three days in Lisbon at the end of September to discuss the challenge of fighting dishonesty in the research environment, with an emphasis on plagiarism, fraud and falsification in scientific articles. Sponsored by the Office of Research Integrity of the United States and the European Science Foundation (ESF), the merit of the First Worldwide Conference on Integrity in Science was that it looked at the problem from a new perspective. Undoubtedly, episodes of scientific dishonesty are far from being a novel phenomenon, but in a world in which investigation carried out by large networks involving people from various countries proliferates, issues such as the importance of preserving primary study data, preventing conflicts of interest or guaranteeing ethical standards and respect for human and animal rights in experiments have ceased to be a problem confined merely to the parochial agenda of institutions.

There was a consensus among participants that academic dishonesty is underestimated. The rare occurrence of the retraction of fraudulent articles being published in scientific journals was mentioned, for example; the retraction rate of articles on the PubMed base, for example, has been just 0.02% since 1994. “What we’ve heard here confirms that improper conduct is far more widespread than we imagined, even though it doesn’t always constitute a crime”, says Ian Halliday, President of the ESF. The pressure for researchers to publish at any cost was the most quoted cause for the rise in fraud. While the number of publications in the United States is stagnant, countries such as China, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan have been increasing their production by 15% every year, according to data presented by Ovid Tzeng, from the National Yang Ming University in Taiwan. “Ranking systems are very harsh in Taiwan, Hong Kong and other locations in Asia. Governments earmark funds according to the ranking and they only ask: how many articles have you published? Anyone who manages to publish a paper in Nature receives US$ 1,000 in cash”, Tzeng states. “We must ask incentive agencies, governments and institutions to review their rules in order to reduce the pressure of increasing the number of articles published, especially for very young researchers. This can be done without jeopardizing quality and might even improve it”, says Peter Tindemans, from the European Science Foundation.

Melissa Anderson, from the University of Minnesota, presented the results of a study of hers, according to which it is not sufficient to bombard students with theoretical knowledge about ethical conduct if this is not accompanied by concrete attitudes. “This type of training is simply ineffective if the student was brought up in an environment of extreme pressure and intense competition”, said Melissa, who for three years monitored 3,300 students from US universities. But the conference highlight was the talk by Herbert Gottweis, a professor of scientific policy from the University of Vienna, about the case of a South Korean, Hwang Woo-Suk, who deceived the world for a year and a half in 2004 and 2005 with his fabricated results about stem-cell research in the journal “Science”. Gottweis visited Hwang in South Korea three weeks before the scandal erupted. He concluded that the South Korean had attached himself to a network, comprised of respected academic entities in his own country and partners abroad, in addition to industry and media sectors. “The fact that Hwang managed to deceive so many people, including his partners in other countries, has a lot to do with a certain blindness that affected stem-cell researchers who were over-anxious about making the possibility of getting stem cells from cloned embryos come true”, Gottweis stated. “The lesson to be drawn from this case is that peer-review is no substitute for good governance and that honesty in science depends on the guarantee of integrity  amongst the scientific networks.”

There was lively debate at the meeting and in concrete terms at least one consistent proposal was put forward. The Global Science Forum (GSF), linked to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), took a draft of what it intends to become a guideline for best practices to guarantee scientific integrity and prevent improper conduct. Written with the contributions of the 52 representatives from the 23 countries that took part in the OECD workshop in Tokyo at the beginning of the year, the report presents a number of recommendations. Some are an appeal to common sense. It is suggested, for example, that each institution has a specific channel whereby suspected misconduct can be denounced and a structure capable of analyzing this in a discreet, fair and efficient way. It may seem elementary, but there are few institutions with such a structure, which discourages such misconduct being denounced. Discretion is fundamental in order to avoid injustice, such as that committed by the Office of Research Integrity of the United States, one of the organizers of the conference, against Thereza Imanishi-Kari, a Brazilian whose case was recalled at the event. In the late 80’s she was accused of falsifying data relating to research carried out in partnership with Nobel prize winner David Baltimore and she lost her job at Tufts University. In 1996 she was absolved of the accusations and was able to resume her career.

According to an OECD document, there is no ideal evaluation system. Some countries prefer committees set up to evaluate specific cases, while others have offices charged with evaluating improper conduct in each institution; there are also those that have national committees, generally nations that have small scientific communities. All systems are valid, says the report, provided there are clear parameters for investigations that are known by the entire scientific community, in addition to an ample right to defense and previously defined penalties. One objective that should be pursued, the report proposes, is to increase cooperation between the organizations from various countries that fight improper conduct, in order to confront the problem with international cooperation. “We need very simple information. If I suspect that a researcher from another country has acted improperly, how can I denounce him or her? What system does that country have?” proposes Nicolas Steneck, from the Office of Research Integrity of the United States. Sent to Lisbon by the journal “Nature“, editor and commentator Sarah Tomlin recorded in the journal’s blog the goings-on behind the scenes and coffee break jokes. “Do you know what’s the best excuse an author can give to the editor of a publication that requires his original working data? White ants ate my data”, wrote Sarah.