Don’t believe everything you read (including in scientific journals)

News broke last week (see here for an example) that a University of Connecticut researcher had be found to have falsified data concerning his research into the antioxidant resveratrol (found in, among other things, red wine and red grapes). This week the British Medical Journal reports on the fact that a doctor and flu vaccine researcher based at Leicester University in the UK has been suspended for a range of misdemeanours including forging colleagues signatures and recruiting himself into a study under a disguised name.

It would be comforting to think of these events as isolated incidences in the scientific community. However, according to a recent piece in the British Medical Journal, scientific misconduct is ‘worryingly prevalent’, at least in the UK [1].

The BMJ sent out a questionnaire to more than 9,000 researchers and reviewers asking if they has knowledge of colleagues “inappropriately adjusting, excluding, altering, or fabricating data” for the purpose of publication. Of those who responded, 13 per cent admitted they had such knowledge. 6 per cent admitted they were aware of misconduct within their own institutions which remained insufficiently investigated.

On January 12, the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) held a summit to address the problem of research misconduct in the UK. Referring to the BMJ survey, the Chair of COPE Dr Elizabeth Wagner is quoted as saying “This survey chimes with our experience from COPE where we see many cases of institutions not cooperating with journals and failing to investigate research misconduct properly.”

In a recent editorial in the BMJ [2], Dr Wagner and the BMJ’s editor Fiona Godlee wrote: “There are enough known or emerging cases to suggest that the UK’s apparent shortage of publicly investigated examples has more to do with a closed, competitive, and fearful academic culture than with Britain’s researchers being uniquely honest.”

My feeling is if the culture wasn’t so ‘closed, competitive, and fearful’ we’d probably see that misconduct is even more prevalent than the recent BMJ survey suggests. And that’s a problem because we really do need to rely on the integrity of research findings in making truly informed decisions about health and the management of disease.

Personally, I’m delighted that institutions such as the BMJ and COPE are shining a light onto this issue and thinking about how we might curb research misconduct.


1. Tavare A. Scientific misconduct is worryingly prevalent in the UK, shows BMJ survey. BMJ 2012;344:e377

2. Godlee F, et al. Research misconduct in the UK. BMJ 2012;344:d8357

3 Responses to Don’t believe everything you read (including in scientific journals)

  1. Frederica Huxley 21 January 2012 at 2:09 am #

    That’s if you can get access to the relevant research in the first place – Roche seems reluctant to release research on Tamiflu to the DOH:

  2. jake3_14 24 January 2012 at 9:50 pm #

    Even allegedly reputable, peer-reviewed medical research needs to be read with a healthy dose of skepticism. The article “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical
    Science,” ( profiles the work of Dr. John Ioannidis, one of the world’s foremost experts on the credibility of medical research. He charges that as much as 90 percent of the published
    medical information that doctors rely on is flawed. His work has been widely accepted by the
    medical community; it has been published in the field’s top journals, where it is heavily cited; and he is a big draw at conferences. Given this exposure, and the fact that his work broadly targets everyone else’s work in medicine, as well as everything that physicians do and all the health advice we get, Ioannidis may be one of the most influential scientists alive. Yet for all his influence, he worries that the field of medical research is so pervasively flawed, and so riddled with conflicts of interest, that it might be chronically resistant to change—or even to publicly admitting that there’s a problem.


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