Why I’m calling for watchdog to help rid research of malpractice and fraud
Last year the Guardian reported on the case of Paulo Macchiarini, an Italian surgeon working in Sweden, who was “hailed for turning the dream of regenerative medicine into a reality – until he was exposed as a con artist and false prophet”. The Swedish Central Ethics Review Board concluded recently that six papers should be retracted as they falsely claimed that the artificial windpipe transplants he gave them were much more effective than they actually were. In fact, at least three of his patients died.
We included links to other items about the horrifying Paulo Macchiarini case and other items about research integrity consternation in the UK. This discussion piece raises three important questions for the rest of the world:
- Do we do enough to externalise/report on research misconduct cases or do we risk an exasperated political reaction?
- How would we respond if there were serious allegations of misconduct leveled against one of our ‘superstar’ researchers?
- Do we need a national research integrity body to inform practice and for appeals on the substance of decisions (rather than just on the the investigation process)?
It’s painfully difficult to know for sure, because the data coming out of universities on the number of allegations they investigate each year is either inconsistent or simply non-existent. The majority of universities publish an annual report on research integrity with figures, but at least a quarter don’t. A few told me that they won’t publish information because of confidentiality. When plenty of other institutions manage to find a way of presenting the information, this just leads to suspicion that some universities are simply acting to protect their reputation.
Some universities told me that they haven’t seen a need to publish data on the number of investigations they hold simply because there haven’t been any investigations. That might sound like something to be proud of, but experts warned us that if a university consistently receives no allegations from year to year then that should actually be more of a cause for concern than those that conduct lots of investigations.