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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

“Reminder about service options and an easy way to pay AHRECS,” we say… aware of how corporate sleazy that sounds0

 

Dr Gary Allen, Senior Consultants AHRECS
Prof. Mark Israel
Prof. Colin Thomson AM
  
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Just in time for the end of the financial year (though we know many research institutions budget around calendar year), AHRECS has the capacity to receive payments by credit card. We thought this a good time to remind you of those of our services that lend themselves nicely to credit card payment.

In-meeting 30-minute professional development for HREC members ($900) – Workshops/briefings/guided discussion about your selected topic.  An easy way to tick the HREC member training box with minimum interruption to the work of a busy committee.  An experienced AHRECS team member will provide a PowerPoint with pre-recorded audio that could be played in a meeting (and retained for five years for viewing by absent and new members); the team member will ‘phone or Zoom into the meeting for Q&A/discussion. If so AHRECS can also record that component for your later use.

Access the new subscription area ($360) – Thank you to everyone who expressed interest and support for the new in-house subscribers’ area.  This is scheduled to go live in July/August.  By subscribing, you will get access to an impressive (and growing) set of HRE and RI resources that are Creative Commons so you can use them within your organisations as much as you want.

Bespoke webinar for your research community ($1500) – A one-hour webinar on a human research ethics or research integrity topic of your choice, tailored to your institution. The price allows for up to 200 attendees and provision of a recording for your later use.

3-hour orientation workshop for new RIAs ($2300) – Provide your new Research Integrity Advisers with a practical, topical and engaging orientation through this four-hour workshop.

Ten hours of on-call advice ($3400) – On-call advice can be used for both human research ethics and research integrity advice.  We can offer advice on everything from review feedback on a difficult application to commenting on a draft policy and providing advice on a tricky question with which the committee has been struggling.  In the research integrity space, we can suggest an appropriate investigation approach for an alleged breach, comment on a RI resource, or suggest references on a key topic.  The purchased time can be used in 15min, 30min, 1h, 4h and 8h blocks

Send an email to gary.allen@ahrecs.comif you have any questions.

The prices above exclude GST and a 2% credit card processing fee

Complainant anonymity in misconduct proceedings depends on the forum0

 

Prof. Colin Thomson AM, Senior Consultant, AHRECS

This news item, while identifying the fact that the decision relates to court proceedings and not to university processes, leaves out some informative facts.

Two members of the La Trobe academic staff lodged complaints about bullying by Professor Keyzer, whom the university suspended.  In turn, Professor Keyzer commenced proceedings against the university in the Federal Court to challenge the way it had handled the complaint. The complainants were not parties in these proceedings.  However, they sought to intervene in the case (Keyzer v La Trobe University [2019] FCA 646) to request that the court order that their names not be published.  They were represented at the hearing but both the university and Professor Keyzer were not.

The court needed to decide whether to allow the complainants to intervene in the case and, if they were allowed, whether there was a case to suppress their names in the court hearing and record.  The court allowed them to intervene but did not order suppression of their names.

The question of suppression of the complainants’ names raised, and was ultimately decided on, the fundamental difference between proceedings in institutional investigations and those in superior courts.  That difference is that publicity of court proceedings is seen to be central to the administration of justice in Australia, and characteristic of the English common law tradition that informs Australian court proceedings.

In concluding his comprehensive judgement, that contains a thorough account of the open justice principle at stake and the exceptions that have been permitted, Anastassiou J said:

I echo the sympathy expressed by Mahoney JA for the “great pain” that is often felt by those subjected to publicity surrounding court proceedings. However, the power conferred by s 37AF is constrained by the grounds under s 37AG and by the overlay of priority to be given to the public interest served by open justice pursuant to s 37AE. In my view, s 37AG(1)(a) makes clear that the public interest served by open justice may only be qualified where it is necessary in the strictest sense to prevent prejudice to the proper administration of justice. The legitimate personal interest of the interveners in maintaining their privacy in connection with the complaints process is not sufficient to conclude that the protection of their interests is necessary to prevent prejudice to the administration of justice.

The following is the text of sections referred to:

37AE  Safeguarding public interest in open justice

In deciding whether to make a suppression order or non-publication order, the Court must take into account that a primary objective of the administration of justice is to safeguard the public interest in open justice.

37AF  Power to make orders

(1)  The Court may, by making a suppression order or non-publication order, on grounds permitted by this Part, prohibit or restrict the publication or other disclosure of:

    • information tending to reveal the identity of or otherwise concerning any party to or witness in a proceeding before the Court or any person who is related to or otherwise associated with any party to or witness in a proceeding before the Court; or

(b) information that relates to a proceeding before the Court and is:

(i)   information that comprises evidence or information about evidence; or

(ii)   information obtained by the process of discovery; or

(iii)   information produced under a subpoena; or

(iv)   information lodged with or filed in the Court.

(2)  The Court may make such orders as it thinks appropriate to give effect to an order under subsection (1).

37AG  Grounds for making an order

(1)  The Court may make a suppression order or non-publication order, on one or more of the following grounds:

(a)  the order is necessary to prevent prejudice to the proper administration of justice;

(b)  the order is necessary to prevent prejudice to the interests of the Commonwealth or a State or Territory in relation to national or international security;

(c)  the order is necessary to protect the safety of any person;

(d)  the order is necessary to avoid causing undue distress or embarrassment to  a party  to or witness in a criminal proceeding involving an offence of a sexual nature (including an act of indecency).

(2)  A suppression order or non-publication order must specify the ground or grounds on which the order is made.

Concluding observation

Within the scope of a university’s own investigation or disciplinary procedures, the assurance of confidentiality in internal procedures and policies can be relied upon. However, when proceedings in relation to staff misconduct are brought in an Australian superior court, such as the Federal Court or a State Supreme Court, the priorities among principles changes. In those courts, the principle of preserving the “proper administration of justice” is fundamental and has priority over the principles that governed the conduct of institutional proceedings. In such courts, the grounds on which exceptions can be made to that principle, such as orders that suppress the name of a person, as this case illustrates, are few.

This post may be cited as:
Thomson, C. (24  May 2019) Complainant anonymity in misconduct proceedings depends on the forum. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/research-integrity/complainant-anonymity-in-misconduct-proceedings-depends-on-the-forum

New research integrity professional development resource0

 

All Australian research institutions that receive NHMRC or ARC research funding or otherwise operate under the auspices of Universities Australia should be steadily working toward implementing the 2018 version of the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Researchby 30 June 2019.

We’d argue that all other Australian research institutions should also be working on implementation.

Australian Code (2018) template ppt, over 40 short audio clips, activity sheet and facilitator notes – https://www.patreon.com/posts/23800537

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Suggested audio snippets for the slides
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Embedded audio# about the suite of workshop resources about the Australian Code (2018)
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Sample audio snippet# from the >40 audio clips

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# To listen to the embedded audio by Mark Israel, download the ppts. View the slides that have an audio speaker icon. Click the icon and press play

As you will have seen from the countdown on the AHRECS website, we’re down to the last 50% of the time to implement the Australian Code (2018). We understand that in many institutions research staff and management are stretched and that the recent cuts in research infrastructure funding will do little to help that. We are not trying to provoke panic or undue stress, but believe that a commitment to research integrity (like research ethics) involves long-term, consistent and coherent planning and investment and not erratic and unsustained bursts of ‘excitement’. Those institutions that are still struggling with the 2007 Code should see that as an indication that they need to take the 2018 Code seriously and not hope that its demands will go away.
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Awareness-raising and professional development are effective ways to implement the Australian Code (2018) and invest in the research culture of an institution.
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To assist our patrons, we’ve come up with a cost-effective resource.

Gold Patrons can now download at no charge:

  1. A template for a workshop for HDR candidates and other early career researchers (to be delivered by a member of your staff) about the Australian Code (2018) and research integrity in general.
  2. Over 40 audio clips by Dr Mark Israel that can either played within the above workshop or placed on a resource page for access by your research community.
  3. A group activity sheet of nine vignettes, that are based on real cases.

(1) and (3) are supplied with facilitator notes.

Included with this post is a sheet that suggests which audio clips to use with each slide of the ppt.  The sheet is included with the resources discussed in this post. Also included here is a PowerPoint with an embedded audio clip about the resource.

It only costs USD15/month to become a Gold Patron. Visit https://www.patreon.com/ahrecs to become a patron and for more information.

Of course, AHRECS would be delighted to run such workshops for and with you and to support the development of policy and procedures in your institution that would meet the requirements of the 2018 Australian Code.  See https://ahrecs.com/australiancode2018 for further information about the ways AHRECS can assist you with implementation.

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

This post may be cited as:
Israel, M. (9 January 2018) New research integrity professional development resource. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/research-integrity/new-research-integrity-professional-development-resource

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