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Don’t Forget Scientific Fraud

Photo: March for Science, by Vlad Tchompalov via Unsplash.

“I’ve done the research. I have the facts.” Thus said two people to me on successive days over the weekend, in almost identical words, in separate conversations about the same controversial health-related topic in the news. I won’t say what that topic is, because it doesn’t matter and anyway you can probably guess. The two viewpoints were delivered with maximum certainty while being diametrically opposite to each other.

I have no doubt that both individuals have “done the research.” However, I pointed out that on this subject, by going on the Internet you can find support for any view you prefer. As you can with many science-related questions that people care about. They were not buying it.

A Range of Conflicting Views

Why can you find support for a range of conflicting views from current peer-reviewed scientific research? There are various reasons but one unsettling answer is: scientific fraud. Lots of it. Ronald Bailey at Reason cites two reports from the Netherlands and asks, “How Much Scientific Research Is Actually Fraudulent?”:

Both studies are preprints that report the results of surveys of thousands of scientists in the Netherlands aiming to probe the prevalence of questionable research practices and scientific misconduct.

Summarizing their results, an article in Science notes, “More than half of Dutch scientists regularly engage in questionable research practices, such as hiding flaws in their research design or selectively citing literature. And one in 12 [8 percent] admitted to committing a more serious form of research misconduct within the past 3 years: the fabrication or falsification of research results.” Daniele Fanelli, a research ethicist at the London School of Economics, tells Science that 51 percent of researchers admitting to questionable research practices “could still be an underestimate.”

In June, a meta-analysis of prior studies on questionable research practices and misconduct published in the journal Science and Engineering Ethics reported that more than 15 percent of researchers had witnessed others who had committed at least one instance of research misconduct (falsification, fabrication, plagiarism), while nearly 40 percent were aware of others who had engaged in at least one questionable research practice.

In a blistering editorial earlier this week, former editor of the medical journal The BMJ Richard Smith asks if it’s “time to assume that health research is fraudulent until proven otherwise.” Smith calls attention to a systematic review of randomized controlled trials recently submitted to the journal Anaesthesia by British anesthetist John Carlisle. He found that of the 153 studies for which individual patient data were available, 44 percent had untrustworthy data and 26 percent were what he called “zombie” trials whose results are animated by false data. Carlisle pointed out that many of the zombie trials came from researchers in Egypt, China, India, Iran, Japan, South Korea, and Turkey. [Emphasis added.]

Note the comment from Richard Smith. The time has come “to assume that health research is fraudulent until proven otherwise.” Would that not apply to other research, virtually all of it, and not only in the countries highlighted in the article? Scientists around the globe are 100 percent human and equally subject to temptations to fake it in order to make it. Read the rest here.