“Science Fraud is Huge”
Science requests that its discoveries should be repeatable and testable. A furore was created recently when an attempt to replicate 100 prominent psychology studies elicited a negative conclusion. It was found that only 39% of the papers analysed could be repeated.¹ Even more interesting is the comment of Joshua Correll, one author whose work could not be replicated. “This is how science works”, he said. Well, imagine a homeopath trying to justify a treatment not being repeatable even though in homeopathy treatment is not meant to be repeatable as each individual is treated differently.
Research may not be repeatable. This is due to many possibilities, often genuine or sometimes due to imperfect human nature. (Hence Hahnemann’s insistence on the physician and experimenter being an “unprejudiced observer.” Paragraph 6 of the Organon) One thing we are all agreed on is that we want to get to the hidden truths of nature and that means honesty and openness. It precludes dishonesty.
Science Fraud and Misconduct
In his science column for The Irish Times, Fraud is now the biggest enemy of science, William Reville, emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC, raised the under-reported issue of science fraud and scientific misconduct. He concludes that scientists should be required to adhere to a universal code of ethics.
Reville informs us that misconduct in science is a huge problem and threatens the whole scientific project. He cites a review of 2,047 biomedical and life science article in PubMed, as retracted on 3rd May 2012, revealed that only 21.3% of retractions were due to error while 67% were due to misconduct, including fraud and suspected fraud (43.4%), duplicate publication (14.2%) and plagiarism (9.8%). Since 1975, the number of retractions due to fraud has risen tenfold.
Scientists are under pressure as one’s reputation and career success is determined by the number of papers published and the perceived prestige of the journals in which they are published and if a scientist experiences a “dry patch” it’s too easy to succumb to the temptation to cheat. The problem is exacerbated by the excessive number of graduates doing PhDs in Ireland – and unnecessarily so.
Prof Reville concludes with the imperative that scientists should adhere to a universal code of ethics as in the practise of medicine. This isn’t the first time Reville has raised concerns similar concerns in the past: Something has gone very wrong with science and Why are so many social scientists left-liberal? which reveals an overt ideological bias. Reville refers to other articles on science fraud: Full Of Shite: Why a Fecal Transplant Paper Was Retracted and Buried in Bullshit.
Taking a defensive stance in his reply, Dr Cormac O’Raifeartaigh said fraud is rare in his field of physics – “To my knowledge.” This is a prejudgement which can only leave him closed to the possibility of recognising fraud. Secondly, he says fraud is mostly in the area of biomedical research but isn’t this the area fraud can do the most harm. It’s not about location, it’s not about quantity but the qualitative consequences of science fraud that matters. O’Raifeartaigh then retreats to the catchcry of science: science is self-correcting. He fails to qualify this with examples of the self-correcting timescale or what is acceptable for such a timescale. Is this self-correcting quality of science a straw man, merely a fake crutch?
Prof Reville replies referring to many “published results which can’t be replicated, selectively picking data to support a hypothesis, inadequate statistical analysis and even outright fabrication of data.”
This misconduct problem is now well evidenced and widely acknowledged. For example, in a large study published in PLOS One in May 2009, Daniele Fanelli reported that, whereas only 2 per cent of scientists admitted to outright fabrication of data, 33.7 per cent admitted practices such as dropping data based on a “gut feeling” or selectively reporting data that supported the hypothesis. Tellingly, about 70 per cent of scientists said that they had seen colleagues doing this. I also refer Dr O’Raifeartaigh to an overview of the problem published in the Economist in October 19th, 2013.
Misconduct ranges across the scientific disciplines but seems to be most prevalent in biomedicine. Richard Horton, editor in chief of the prestigious medical journal the Lancet, said in 2015, “The case against science is straightforward: much of the (biomedical) scientific literature, maybe half, may simply be untrue”.
Dr Shane Bergin, School of Physics, Trinity College Dublin shows another aspect of the problem. He sees a problem in the insecurity scientists experience being dependent on short-term contracts and winning these contracts depends on their ability to win financial assistance from funding bodies. “The higher your publication count, the more likely you are to succeed. You need to publish at a rate that sustains your career. It is a ‘publish or perish’ working environment.”
Dr Cormac O’Raifeartaigh returns with a more measured view, including a reiteration of Reville’s column:
For example, a recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) study found that over 2,000 scientific research articles were retracted (or withdrawn) from the PubMed database of scientific literature, and that 43 per cent of these articles were retracted for reasons of fraud. This is a matter of great concern to any scientist, but few media reports of the PNAS study pointed out that the retracted articles represented about 0.01 per cent of the total number of research articles published on the same database over the same period – and thus the number of articles retracted for reasons of fraudulent reporting comprised less than 0.005 per cent of the total sample set.
I certainly agree that it is very likely that such figures represent only the tip of the iceberg. However, it seems to me that there is a pressing need to quantify such speculations. In addition, almost all such studies have focused on biomedicine and related fields. There is a great need for similar studies in other fields of science. – Yours, etc,
Reminiscent of Khalil Gibran’s story of the two guardian angels who argued over their work and therefore: who guards the guardian angels? one has to wonder with O’Raifeartaigh’s comment that fraud only accounted for 0.005% of the total sample set. Such a bias in favour of quantity over quality and the ensuing consequences of science fraud begs the question; who guards the science guardians?
The Two Guardian Angels²
On an evening two angels met at the city gate, and they greeted one another, and they conversed.
The one angel said, “What are you doing these days, and what work is given you?”
And the other answered, “It was been assigned me to be the guardian of a fallen man who lives down in the valley, a great sinner, most degraded. Let me assure you it is an important task, and I work hard.”
The first fallen angel said, “That is an easy commission. I have often known sinners, and have been their guardian many a time. But it has now been assigned me to be the guardian of the good saint who lives in a bower out yonder. And I assure you that is an exceedingly difficult work, and most subtle.”
Said the first angel, “This is but assumption. How can guarding a saint be harder than guarding a sinner?”
And the other answered, “What impertinence, to call me assumptious (sic)! I have stated but the truth. Methinks it is you who are assumptious!”
Then the angels wrangled and fought, first with words and then with fists and wings.
While they were fighting an archangel came by. And he stopped them, and said, “Why do you fight? And what is it all about? Know you not that it is most unbecoming for guardian angels to fight at the city gate? Tell me, what is your disagreement?”
Then both angels spoke at once, each claiming that the work given him was the harder, and that he deserved the greater recognition.
The archangel shook his head and bethought him.
Then he said, “My friends, I cannot say now which one of you has the greater claim upon honour and reward. But since the power is bestowed in me, therefore for peace’ sake and for good guardianship, I give each of you the other’s occupation, since each of you insists that the other’s task is the easier one. Now go hence and be happy at your work.”
The angels thus ordered went their ways. But each one looked backward with greater anger at the archangel. And in his heart each was saying, “Oh, these archangels! Every day they make life harder and still harder for us angels!”
But the archangel stood there, and once more he bethought him. And he said in his heart, “We have indeed, to be watchful and to keep guard over our guardian angels.”
Drug Research and Misconduct
Prof Reville is correct in saying the science project is not all negative, that science has contributed much and he is also correct in requesting a universal code of ethics for scientists. But a universal code of ethics should be a requisite for pharmaceutical companies and for it to be adhered to. We regularly come across unethical research, misconduct in marketing, false claims about a drug’s effectiveness or side-effects, experimenting on children without parental consent, doctoring results, not making results available for analysis (e.g. see Tamiflu links above) and the use of bribes, holidays and payola. It’s all about trust.
1. For an interesting commentary read Scientific Regress by William A. Wilson.
2. The Two Guardian Angels as told in The Wanderer by Khalil Gibran (link)
Further Reading On Science Fraud
The Economist: “Trouble at the lab: Scientists like to think of science as self-correcting. To an alarming degree, it is not.”
Scientific misconduct – the Wikipedia entry on science fraud and misconduct.
Science fraud and misconduct in cancer research at Duke University.
BMJ publishes study revealing How Flawed Drug Research Fails a Trusting Public Link (Also, see related posts on Research, GlaxoSmithKline/GSK, Evidence-based medicine, ADHD, Psychiatry and the DSM)
Flu drugs aren’t tested and side-effects outweigh the benefits Link.
No evidence behind Tamiflu: Roche chief executive dismisses Tamiflu trials doubts
Science flaws and fraud: an overview at Vox.com
Something has gone very wrong with science – Prof William Reville (See also a related post here)
Scientific Peer Review in Crisis – By Prof Dariusz Leszczynski
Deadly Medicines and Organised Crime: How Big Pharma Has Corrupted Healthcare by Peter Gotzsche
Retraction Watch is a website listing science papers that have been retracted or amended
Big Pharma bombshell: Judge finds Merck lied in patent trial, overturns $200-million verdict (June 2016)
“Merck’s misconduct includes…misusing Pharmasset’s confidential information…, and lying under oath at deposition and trial.” — Federal Judge Beth Labson Freeman (Los Angeles Times)
Cipla & Pfizer among 200 drugmakers under lens for poor drugs (21 June 2016)
The Drug Controller General of India has launched inspections against 200 drug-makers, including leading firms like Cipla and Pfizer, for allegedly selling poor quality medicines and non-compliance to manufacturing norms. (ETHealthworld.com)