Infamous cases of misconduct such as that of Paolo Macchiarini are just the extremes on a long spectrum of dubious research practices, say Nick Butler, Helen Delaney and Sverre Spoelstra
Earlier this year, Paolo Macchiarini – former star surgeon and professor at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute – was dismissed from his post following a high-profile investigation prompted by a documentary broadcast on Swedish national television. Macchiarini was found guilty of failing to secure ethical approval for experimental transplant techniques and misrepresenting data in journal publications. The scandal continues to resonate throughout the scientific community and has so far led to the resignation of the vice-chancellor of Sweden’s most prestigious medical university and the secretary general of the Nobel Prize committee, among others.
Such egregious breaches of scientific protocol are serious, but mercifully rare. Far more prevalent – and therefore even more damaging – are research practices that fall into an ethical “grey zone” between overt misconduct and scholarly best practice. Academic misconduct refers to forms of fabrication, falsification and plagiarism (FFP) – in other words, the terrain of fraudsters, con artists and cheats. Questionable research practices (QRPs), however, are more difficult to pin down but typically involve misrepresentation, inaccuracy or bias. Recent research suggests that academics are becoming more adept at employing QRPs that skirt around the edges of misconduct, like athletes who optimise their performance with artificial enhancements without technically breaking the rules. To put it into perspective, one study found that only 2 per cent of scientists admit to FFP, while almost a third admit to engaging in QRPs.
One prominent example of a QRP is “HARKing”, standing for “hypothesising after the results are known”. Normally, researchers follow the standard scientific practice of developing a hypothesis and then testing it against the facts. But HARKing involves constructing or changing a hypothesis after the data have been collected and analysed. If this is concealed from journal editors, the integrity of the scientific process is compromised. Yet, strictly speaking, HARKing