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Good Practices

The importance of taking a step forward

A U.S. report proposes better coordinated and more ambitious initiatives for addressing research misconduct

Augusto ZambonatoThe U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine published a report on April 11, 2017, in which they call on the American scientific community to work collectively and in a coordinated fashion to perfect their research integrity practices and policies by systematically investigating all indications of misconduct and introducing effective educational actions that reach everyone from undergraduates to research group leaders. Entitled “Fostering Integrity in Research,” this 285-page document makes 11 recommendations (see box). All the suggestions start from the premise that the current effort to maintain a more transparent and ethical scientific environment has not been sufficient. Evidence of this is said to include the dissemination of detrimental practices that in some cases remain undetected for many years, and the recent increase in retractions of scientific articles.

The 13 researchers who produced the report say that steps forward need to be taken. The first recommendation on the list sums up that concern and suggests that all stakeholders involved in the research enterprise—researchers, universities, research sponsors, journals, and societies—should expand and update their practices and policies to respond to the threats identified in the report. “Evidence accumulated in recent decades, and particularly in the past several years, strongly indicates that the failure to define and respond emphatically to research misconduct constitutes a significant threat to the research enterprise,” the document warns.

The text also recommends that coordinated action be taken against problems that have already been addressed, but not yet efficiently. One prescription is that each scientific society establish clear and specific rules related to attribution of authorship in scientific articles. According to the report, conventions related to that subject are still being adopted in a decentralized manner and vary among institutions and periodicals. Establishing common parameters for each subject would help guide correct decision-making at laboratories and in the context of scientific collaborations. The report reiterates that inclusion on the list of authors of the names of individuals who did not make significant intellectual contributions to the scientific article must be emphatically discouraged.

Another key recommendation is that a large advisory board be established that is independent of government, composed of representatives of universities and research organizations. The functions of that body would be neither executive nor investigative. The idea is to create a sounding board able to reflect on problems, mediate disputes, and provide guidance to scientific institutions, particularly the smaller ones. According to bioengineer Robert Nerem, chair of the committee that produced the report and professor emeritus at the Georgia Institute of Technology, it is time to create a body that can support self-regulation by scientific institutions before the U.S. Congress, which as presently constituted has sent some hostile signals to the world of science, decides to enact new laws on research integrity. “Some legislators are champions in matters of research, but I would be leery about what would come out of Congress. I don’t think Congress would have the best interests of the research enterprise at heart,” Nerem told the journal Science.

The report is critical of initiatives taken in the field of education that are tailored to fulfill legal obligations but not enough to produce concrete results, such as online training on topics in research integrity. It also finds that quite a few institutions have been weak in dealing with cases of misconduct. Some recent scandals are examined in an appendix to the report. One of them involved two researchers from Duke University: Anil Potti and Joseph Nevins. They proposed a method that could predict the evolution of lung cancer in patients, as well as a technique for predicting which chemotherapy would be most effective in treating each individual victim of lung, breast, or ovarian cancer. Despite warnings from other researchers that it was not possible to reproduce the results presented, the university was satisfied with the explanations by Potti and Nevins and released clinical trials with the techniques in February 2010. Months later, Potti left the university, accused of stealing data from other researchers. “I don’t know if Duke has changed its practices, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it happened again,” Nerem said. The best way to reduce the number of such incidents, Nerem believes, is to make training in the responsible conduct of research a priority at all research institutions and universities–and the advisory board could help with that.

The committee responsible for the report began its work in 2012 with the goal of updating a 1992 National Academies report entitled “Responsible Science,” published 25 years ago. According to Nerem, the idea of simply updating the text was abandoned after the first few meetings of the committee. “We realized that the challenge was to take a new look at research integrity” he said, referring to the transformations that have occurred in the research environment and the remarkable growth in scientific production in recent years. While the earlier report emphasized the responsibility of individual researchers, the new one treats the group of scientific institutions. “Instead of the story about the one rotten apple, we now focus on the entire bushel of apples,” explained researcher C.K. Gunsulus, a member of the committee and head of the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, according to the National Public Radio website.

The 1992 report was commissioned following a wave of scandals and accelerated the establishment of the Office of Research Integrity (ORI), which consolidated two existing organizations. The ORI investigates accusations of misconduct involving federally funded biomedical research. The National Science Foundation (NSF), a sponsor of basic research, also has its own structure to rule on cases of misconduct among the projects it finances.