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Why scientists need to do more about research fraud

Scientist with pipette loading DNA gels in laboratory
Real science... or fraud? Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

About 10 years ago, in my lab rat days, I moved to a large structural biology lab. As a cell biologist I had a different skillset to my new colleagues, and my new boss asked to me tackle a problem that had been eluding the rest of the lab. This was to replicate the result of an experiment performed by our cell-biological collaborators across the road.

I approached the challenge with the enthusiasm of a new starter. I was soon able to show results proving I had the system up and running, with positive and negative controls all doing the right thing.

But trying it for real, I just as quickly got stuck. I repeated the experiment countless times over the coming months, varying this and that parameter and trying different cell lines and farting around with different sequences, and never once managed to achieve the intended result.

As I thought and learned more about the experimental system we were using and the biological problem we were tackling, I started to wonder how on earth our friends across the campus could ever have expected to have got they result they had – and had published. The more I understood the system, the less I understood their result.

Finally, with Christmas approaching, our two labs had a joint meeting to share results and generally plan the next stage of our collaboration. By then I had some other promising lines of enquiry, but that original result still niggled – and eluded – me.

I showed a few gels at this meeting, sharing my frustration, and it was then that one of their senior postdocs said, “Oh yes, we had to do it about fourteen times before we got the result we wanted.”

I wasn’t entirely happy with that particular discovery. But frustrating as it was, at the time I didn’t think in terms of scientific misconduct. We couldn’t publish a paper saying “guys, this isn’t right”, and we certainly didn’t have the time, energy or indeed inclination to force a retraction. It was a minor result in a fairly small field, and there were other geese to cook. But that didn’t stop me being angry at the resources and time I’d wasted on a project that went nowhere ... for all the wrong reasons.

I was rather forcibly reminded of this episode a couple of weeks ago. We hired somebody to join our writing team, somebody like me, who had been a lab rat and then jumped ship. Assigned to mentor the new hire, I invited them for an informal chat so that I could understand them better.

“Why did you leave bench science?” might have been an obvious question, but I asked it anyway. The answer seemed plausible: this person had got to the stage where they were spending so much time writing grants and papers that they had no time to do bench work, and so decided to make a clean break. Apparently they wrote all the lab’s papers and grant proposals, being good at it, so a career in medical communications seemed like a natural step.

But soon after I reviewed their first piece of writing, the new hire resigned. Apparently their partner was relocating overseas, and so they were going along too. A couple of days later, halfway through their notice period, they simply didn’t turn up to the office. And that was that.

Except ...

The following week we discovered that this person had previously worked for a short time at another agency in London. And had left there in similarly mysterious circumstances.

It was then we found their name in the newspapers, on Retraction Watch, and in a few other places.

According to the reports, this person had falsified data, and published it, on a number of occasions over several years – both as postdoc and as principal investigator. An inquiry at their home university had upheld allegations of misconduct, and they had been fired from their post.

And this brings me back to where we came in, to the effect scientific malpractice has on other people. The scientific fraudster who worked briefly for us had lied and cheated their way to a prestigious position, winning grants and awards on the back of made-up research. In doing so they took resources that could have been used by someone else, someone who wasn’t a liar and a cheat.

Through winning research funds and positions – deceitfully – they denied an incredible opportunity to somebody who might have actually deserved it; they prevented some other young, honest and hard-working scientist from fulfilling their potential.

There is a spectrum of wrongdoing in science, from selecting the one result out of many that makes sense to you, up to deliberately faking figures in papers. And until there is a change in culture such that people are encouraged to say, “Guys, this isn’t right” – such as I might have been a decade ago – there will continue to be high-profile cases of seriously damaging scientific fraud.

That’s not good for science, and it’s certainly not good for ordinary scientists.

This article titled "Why scientists need to do more about research fraud" was written by Richard P Grant, for on Thursday 4 January 2018 07.54am


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