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Perish for publishing?

Perish for Publishing?

Allegations of misrepresentation of data, serious errors of interpretation, and even outright fraud and fabrication in scientific research, have increased alarmingly of late. Celebrated cases in the United States have included that of Stephen H. Breuning, indicted this spring on charges of submitting false data to obtain an NIMH grant to study the drugs Ritalin and Dexedrine in treatment of hyperactive retarded children. The first scientist to be indicted for a criminal offense regarding research, Breuning also faces charges of obstructing a special NIMH investigation into his earlier research on the topic. The investigation found that Breuning did not, in fact, carry out some of the experiments, and fabricated his results. Breuning denies any intentional wrongdoing (Professional Ethics Report, Spring 1988, 1).

Also under investigation recently by a special NIH panel were allegations by Margot O'Toole, a former postgraduate researcher at MIT's Whitehead Institute, of serious errors in a paper published by, among others, Thereza Imanishi-Kari and David Baltimore in the April 1986 issue of Cell. Three immunologists who reviewed the paper for the NIH each concluded that while "the disputed data could be subject to more than one interpretation" the paper was "whitin scientific norms" (Science, July 15, 1988, 241; Nature, June 30, 1988, 795-97).

Controversy over research is not restricted to the American scientific community, however. Australian William McBride, founder and director of Foundation 41, a private research organization, faces allegations of fraud regarding research on the anticholinergic drug hyoscine. Junior researchers who conducted a study on hyoscine's potential for causing birth defects in rabbits charge that McBride altered the study results before submitting them to the Australian Journal of Biological Science, and further added their names to the paper as coauthors without their knowledge or consent. A special committee, chaired by a former chief justice, has been convened to investigate the charges (Nature July 14, 1988, 96; April 21, 1988, 671).

Such cases bring to the fore concerns about the relationship between science and journalism. As Daniel E. Koshland, Jr., noted in a recent editorial in Science (April 29, 1988), "Journalism must distinguish between fraud, sloppiness, and differences of opinion." And the fact that in the United States research disputes have led to congressional hearings and the suggestion that a separate oversight body be established to police a scientific community unable or unwilling to police itself raises even more troubling questions about appropriate mechanisms for resolution. What these should be seems largely to depend on whether a given dispute involves issues of fraud or deliberate carelessness, or honest error and difference of interpretation.

Alex Weisskopf of the University of California at San Francisco has suggested that journals establish special sections for "recantation, retraction, and modification" to accommodate the latter. Existing means of correcting the record are simply too slow and cumbersome to encourage the practice, he argues. Such a section would have the further benefit of offering a forum for retracting fraudulent papers swiftly, while now they tend to linger in the literature (The Scientist, June 27, 1988, 16).

Yet neither congressional hearings nor special forums for correcting the record address the sources of the fraud/error problem. Questions of personal avarice and flagrant dishonesty aside, many argue that the pressure to publish is the root of all this evil. Participants in a conference on scientific authorship recently called for "measures to reduce the intense pressure on researchers to publish" that leads to carelessness. Quality of work rather than length of bibliography should be the major criteria for evaluating researchers, as is the intent of guidelines recently adopted by the Harvard Medical School faculty.

Conference participants also condemned the listing of numerous authors on papers as diminishing researchers' sense of personal responsibility for what is published. Arnold S. Relman, editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, proposed that to be listed as an author of a scientific study, a researcher must have contributed to at least two of its three phases: design, data gathering, and interpretation of results (New England Journal of Medicine, June 2, 1988, 1462-63; Washington Post, June 1, 1988).

Eliminating the pressure to "publish or perish" may not eliminate scientific fraud and misconduct entirely, but it should reduce the number of researchers who perish because they publish.
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Title Annotation:research fraud
Author:Crigger, Bette-Jane
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Date:Oct 1, 1988
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