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The F-word, or how to fight fires in the research literature0

 

Professor Jennifer Byrne | University of Sydney Medical School and Children’s Hospital at Westmead

 

At home, I am constantly fighting the F-word. Channelling my mother, I find myself saying things like ‘don’t use that word’, ‘not here’, ‘not in this house’. As you can probably gather, it’s a losing battle.

Research has its own F-words – ‘falsification’, ‘fabrication’, different colours of the overarching F-word, ‘fraud’. Unlike the regular F-word, most researchers assume that there’s not much need to use the research versions. Research fraud is considered comfortably rare, the actions of a few outliers. This is the ‘bad apple’ view of research fraud – that fraudsters are different, and born, not made. These rare individuals produce papers that eventually act as spot fires, damaging their fields, or even burning them to the ground. However, as most researchers are not affected, the research enterprise tends to just shrug its collective shoulders, and carry on.

But, of course, there’s a second explanation for research fraud – the so-called ‘bad barrel’ hypothesis – that research fraud can be provoked by poorly regulated, extreme pressure environments. This is a less comfortable idea, because this implies that regular people might be tempted to cheat if subjected to the right (or wrong) conditions. Such environments could result in more affected papers, about more topics, published in more journals. This would give rise to more fires within the literature, and more scientific casualties. But again, these types of environments are not considered to be common, or widespread.

But what if the pressure to publish becomes more widely and acutely applied? The use of publication quotas has been described in different settings as being associated with an uptick in numbers of questionable publications (Hvistendahl 2013; Djuric 2015; Tian et al. 2016). When publication expectations harden into quotas, more researchers may feel forced to choose between their principles and their (next) positions.

This issue has been recently discussed in the context of China (Hvistendahl 2013; Tian et al. 2016), a population juggernaut with scientific ambitions to match. China’s research output has risen dramatically over recent years, and at the same time, reports of research integrity problems have also filtered into the literature. In biomedicine, these issues again have been linked with publication quotas in both academia and clinical medicine (Tian et al. 2016). A form of contract cheating has been alleged to exist in the form of paper mills, or for-profit organisations that provide research content for publications (Hvistendahl 2013; Liu and Chen 2018). Paper mill services allegedly extend to providing completed manuscripts to which authors or teams can add their names (Hvistendahl 2013; Liu and Chen 2018).

I fell into thinking about paper mills by accident, as a result of comparing five very similar papers that were found to contain serious errors, questioning whether some of the reported experiments could have been performed (Byrne and Labbé 2017). With my colleague Dr Cyril Labbé, we are now knee deep in analysing papers with similar errors (Byrne and Labbé 2017; Labbé et al. 2019), suggesting that a worrying number of papers may have been produced with some kind of undeclared help.

It is said that to catch a thief, you need to learn to think like one. So if I were running a paper mill, and wanted to hide many questionable papers in the biomedical literature, what would I do? The answer would be to publish papers on many low-profile topics, using many authors, across many low-impact journals, over many years.

In terms of available topics, we believe that the paper mills may have struck gold by mining the contents of the human genome (Byrne et al. 2019). Humans carry 40,000 different genes of two main types, the so-called coding and non-coding genes. Most human genes have not been studied in any detail, so they provide many publication opportunities in fields where there are few experts to pay attention.

Human genes can also be linked to cancer, allowing individual genes to be examined in different cancer types, multiplying the number of papers that can be produced for each gene (Byrne and Labbé 2017). Non-coding genes are known to regulate coding genes, so non-coding and coding genes can also be combined, again in different cancer types.

The resulting repetitive manuscripts can be distributed between many research groups, and then diluted across the many journals that publish papers examining gene function in cancer (Byrne et al. 2019). The lack of content experts for these genes, or poor reviewing standards, may help these manuscripts to pass into the literature (Byrne et al. 2019). And as long as these papers are not detected, and demand continues, such manuscripts can be produced over many years. So rather than having a few isolated fires, we could be witnessing a situation where many parts of the biomedical literature are silently, solidly burning.

When dealing with fires, I have learned a few things from years of mandatory fire training. In the event of a laboratory fire, we are taught to ‘remove’, ‘alert’, ‘contain’, and ‘extinguish’. I believe that these approaches are also needed to fight fires in the research literature.

We can start by ‘alerting’ the research and publishing communities to manuscript and publication features of concern. If manuscripts are produced to a pattern, they should show similarities in terms of formatting, experimental techniques, language and/or figure appearance (Byrne and Labbé 2017). Furthermore, if manuscripts are produced in a large numbers, they could appear simplistic, with thin justifications to study individual genes, and almost non-existent links between genes and diseases (Byrne et al. 2019). But most importantly, manuscripts produced en masse will likely contain mistakes, and these may constitute an Achilles heel to enable their detection (Labbé et al. 2019).

Acting on reports of unusual shared features and errors will help to ‘contain’ the numbers and influence of these publications. Detailed, effective screening by publishers and journals may detect more problematic manuscripts before they are published. Dedicated funding would encourage active surveillance of the literature by researchers, leading to more reports of publications of concern. Where these concerns are upheld, individual publications can be contained through published expressions of concern, and/or ‘extinguished’ through retraction.

At the same time, we must identify and ‘remove’ the fuels that drive systematic research fraud. Institutions should remove both unrealistic publication requirements, and monetary incentives to publish. Similarly, research communities and funding bodies need to ask whether neglected fields are being targeted for low value, questionable research. Supporting functional studies of under-studied genes could help to remove this particular type of fuel (Byrne et al. 2019).

And while removing, alerting, containing and extinguishing, we should not shy away from thinking about and using any necessary F-words. Thinking that research fraud shouldn’t be discussed will only help this to continue (Byrne 2019).

The alternative could be using the other F-word in ways that I don’t want to think about.

References

Byrne JA (2019). We need to talk about systematic fraud. Nature. 566: 9.

Byrne JA, Grima N, Capes-Davis A, Labbé C (2019). The possibility of systematic research fraud targeting under-studied human genes: causes, consequences and potential solutions. Biomarker Insights. 14: 1-12.

Byrne JA, Labbé C (2017). Striking similarities between publications from China describing single gene knockdown experiments in human cancer cell lines. Scientometrics. 110: 1471-93.

Djuric D (2015). Penetrating the omerta of predatory publishing: The Romanian connection. Sci Engineer Ethics. 21: 183–202.

Hvistendahl M (2013). China’s publication bazaar. Science. 342: 1035–1039.

Labbé C, Grima N, Gautier T, Favier B, Byrne JA (2019). Semi-automated fact-checking of nucleotide sequence reagents in biomedical research publications: the Seek & Blastn tool. PLOS ONE. 14: e0213266.

Liu X, Chen X (2018). Journal retractions: some unique features of research misconduct in China. J Scholar Pub. 49: 305–319.

Tian M, Su Y, Ru X (2016). Perish or publish in China: Pressures on young Chinese scholars to publish in internationally indexed journals. Publications. 4: 9.

This post may be cited as:
Byrne, J. (18 July 2019) The F-word, or how to fight fires in the research literature. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/research-integrity/the-f-word-or-how-to-fight-fires-in-the-research-literature

Consumer Co-design for End of Life Care Discharge Project0

 

In this issue, we are publishing an account of an end-of-life project in whose design there are some features that add to its ethical interest. Many of us are familiar with institutional policies about consumer engagement in human research and have served on project reference groups, but perhaps have less experience with the successful – and ethical – implementation of these. This project may add some valuable understanding of these matters, including:
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  • What insights do the design and information groups offer into the practice of research co-design?
  • Do those insights help to clarify the distinction between co-design and participatory action research?
  • Do those groups have advantages in demonstrating the project’s fulfilment of ethical principles of beneficence, respect or justice
  • Could those groups have a role in overseeing the ethical conduct of a project?
  • Given the subject of this research project, what sort of projects might make best use of groups such as those in this project?

We have invited the author and the research team to provide some follow-up reflection on issues such as these as the project progresses and is completed

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The End of Life Care Discharge Planning Project is led by Associate Professor Laurie Grealish from Griffith University. This research project partners with consumers at all stages, allowing consumers significant contribution. As part of the Queensland Health End of Life Care Strategy, Gold Coast Health is developing a process to support discharge for people near end of life who would like to die at home. A Productivity Commission Report in 2017 noted that although over 70% of Australians prefer to die at home, less than 10% do. This is attributed to the need for improvement in the transition between hospital and community care.

The outcomes of this study are expected to include: (1) an evidence-based discharge process and infrastructure to enhance the transition from hospital [medical wards] to home for end of life care; (2) end of life care information brochure for patients and their family carers; (3) stakeholder feedback to indicate that the process is feasible and satisfactory; and (4) a health service and non-government organisational partnership network to monitor the discharge process and enhance future integrated models of end of life care. Ethical approval has been granted by the Gold Coast Health Human Research Ethics Committee and Griffith University Human Research Ethics Committee.

For the research design stage, three groups were established: 1) Project reference group, 2) Project design group, and, 3) Project information group.

1. Project reference group – The aim of the project reference group is to consider the analysed data and reports from the sub-committees, provide advice on, as well as monitor, implementation strategies. This group is led by Associate Professor Laurie Grealish and has membership from a wide range of stakeholders including hospital clinicians and managers, researchers, community groups, non-government organisations and consumers.

2. Project design group – The purpose of this group is to design an evidence-based discharge process to enable people near the end of life to return home to die if this is their wish. Dr Kristen Ranse from Griffith University is the Chair of this group and the membership of the group includes representatives from Gold Coast Health, consumers, and non-government organisations.

3. Project information group – Led by Dr Joan Carlini from Griffith University, this group is to provide expert advice about what information people need as they consider dying at home. It was identified early by the group that there is an overwhelming amount of information available online and in brochures, leading to confusion. Since this group has stakeholders from a wide range of representatives from health care providers, nongovernment organisations, community groups as well as consumers, there has been a healthy generation of discussions. The consumers on the team led the way in selecting pertinent information and producing a draft document. This was then further modified by the committee, ensuring that the booklet is concise, but also a thorough source of information for end of life care.

The next stage of the project runs from Janulary to July 209, with implementation, data collection and anlaysis, and dissemination of finding.

Contributor
Dr. Joan Carlini, Lecturer, Department of Marketing, Griffith University | Griffith University profile, LinkedIn profile (log in required), Twitter – @joancarlini |

This post may be cited as:
Carlini, J. (18 January 2018) Consumer Co-design for End of Life Care Discharge Project. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/consumer-co-design-for-end-of-life-care-discharge-project

Ten ways of ensuring affordable professional development in your institution0

 

Research institutions have a responsibility under the Australian Code to ‘Provide ongoing training and education that promotes and supports responsible research conduct for all researchers and those in other relevant roles’ (Responsibility 4). Among other things, the National Statement requires that each member of an HREC (National Statement 5.2.3c) receives professional development.

Some institutions may feel that this places a significant burden on the staff responsible for and the funds available for human research ethics and integrity. It won’t surprise you to hear that AHRECS thinks it can help.

1. We have created an expanding suite of professional development resources for subscribers in Patreon. Many of our clients are happy for us to share materials that have been developed for their specific needs once they have had first use, knowing that they will also benefit from the generosity of our other clients as part of a community of practice. A subscription of USD15 per month (approx. AUD20) enables access to all materials; these can then be shared across your institution. You can see two examples of the resources here. See https://www.patreon.com/ahrecs  for more information and to subscribe.

2. AHRECS runs free webinars of panel-based discussions on pressing matters of general interest. Over the last year, speakers from the NHMRC, AHEC, AHRECS and various HRECs have spoken about how to respond to the new Australian Code and the changes to the National Statement.

3. AHRECS can provide face-to-face workshops of up to a day for HRECs, research ethics advisors, groups of researchers and professional staff. We’ve been doing this for CSIRO for over a decade. We also pre-record in-meeting professional development for HRECs across the country, supplementing these video resources with video-conferenced question and answer sessions. Our offerings in this regard start from $900 for the in-meeting activities to $2300 for a full day on-site workshop. Contents and format can be tailored to your institution’s specific needs.

4. AHRECS publishes the free Research Ethics Monthly. As readers know, REM includes topical items relating to human research ethics and research integrity. Your staff could also draw on their experience to contribute to REM as a way of engaging with and receiving feedback from the broader Australasian research ethics community.

5. Institutions could make greater use of their researchers who engage thoughtfully with research ethics matters. HRECs could invite them to speak about ethics at one of their meetings, and record this to create a library of video materials. AHRECS would be happy to host and share these materials across the sector.

6. AHRECS can provide either mentoring or on-call advice to human research ethics/research integrity officers, secretaries, chairs or senior research leaders via email, phone or video-link (this complements in-house expertise and provides affordable access to decades of human research ethics/research integrity experience)

7. We are happy to recommend purchasing the Griffith University Research Ethics Manual which, at $10,000 allows you to gain access to about two years-worth of resource development in human research ethics. AHRECS doesn’t receive any financial benefit from this#, but we can covert the GUREM to a resource that reflects the jurisdictional and institutional contexts within which your researchers operate. Over the last year, we’ve completed this work for ECU and have created video resources to help researchers make best use of the research ethics manual.

8. AHRECS can run a full Masters unit on social research ethics. We deliver this as an intensive each year in Perth in partnership with the University of Western Australia.

9. Institutions can designate a policy officer responsible for reviewing and disseminating relevant news, industry and professional websites, using Google alerts and research output monitoring to collect material of potential interest/value to the University’s research ethics reviewers, REAs and/or researchers. Some of this work is already done by AHRECS for anyone subscribing to its free news service. The vast majority of links are either directly relevant to Australia or are otherwise of interest to the Australian research ethics community. When items are added, an alert+link is posted to our social media pages (LinkedIn | Twitter | Facebook).

10. Ten sounds so much better than nine, doesn’t it? If you have a crash-hot idea about professional development that you want to share with other people in the sector, please suggest a piece for Research Ethics Monthly.

# Dr Gary Allen is the principal author of the GUREM so does receive a component of the license fee.

Contributor
Mark Israel, AHRECS Senior Consultant
Mark’s profilemark.israel@ahrecs.com

Israel, M. (21 December 2018) Ten ways of ensuring affordable professional development in your institution (2018). Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/ahrecs-admin/ten-ways-of-ensuring-affordable-professional-development-in-your-institution

 

Get access to some great resources (two examples included in this post) and support events like the Constructive Voices panels0

 

Every month we add at least two items to the subscribers’ area. These include vignettes and other resources to use in your internally delivered professional development workshops. They are shared on a creative commons basis, so a nominated person can download selected material, load it onto a local server and use it within his or her own institution multiple times.(as long as they adhere to the CC license). Included here is a example pf a discussion item. We are currently working on a library of 26+ research integrity short audio snippets that could be incorporated into your internal research integrity workshops (example also attached). A library of these will be available from the subscribers’ area.

In addition to getting access to these great material, patrons are helping AHRECS cover the costs of events like the Australian Code= and National Statement Constructive Voices panel discussions webinars.

A Gold sponsorship (which costs US15/month) provides access to all materials. Subscriptions are paid via PayPal. We can provide a payment receipt after each monthly payment.

Too become a patron visit https://www.patreon.com/ahrecs.

Feel free to contact us on patron@ahrecs.com to discuss.

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