Advice on dealing with research misconduct

An expert who investigates misconduct cases shares his thoughts and experiences

Tony MayerResearch integrity is an increasingly important topic; with the continuing increase in the world’s research output, it’s more vital than ever to make sure research is of a high standard, and to weed out any fraudulent publications.

As Research Integrity Officer at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, Tony Mayer works with other institutions, funding bodies and publishers to ensure the university’s research is sound. Over the last 20 years he has seen a variety of cases of research misconduct, and dealt with them in different ways.

Here we talk to Mayer about his role, find out why research integrity is so important and get his tips for editors.

What advice would you give to editors who encounter a case of research misconduct?

Be clear about guidelines and rules, and stick to them. Make it clear that when they submit a paper, authors need to read the journal’s Guide for Authors carefully and adhere to the conditions. Make sure they have specified co-authors’ contributions and have all authors sign that they are submitting under the journal’s terms.

At NTU, all researchers have to sign a declaration that they’ve read, understood and will abide by our Research Integrity Policy. If they have signed it and don’t follow it, they can be held accountable.

Have you seen a change in misconduct over the years?

There has been an enormous rise in the amount of research being conducted in the world, partly due to the increase in the number of universities and, in general, funding, particularly in Asia and especially in China. With more research activity, you see more cases.

Also, technologies are changing all the time. It’s now so easy to manipulate images; this has become a relatively common problem in the biosciences. Take Western blots, for example, which are gel plates with several channels used to separate proteins. Years ago, if you only wanted to include results from two of the five channels, you had to physically cut the image and stick it back together. Now it just takes a minute or two to do it in Photoshop. It’s easier to falsify images; standards have had to change to keep up with this.

What are the most common types of research misconduct, and what impact can they have?

The big three are falsification, fabrication and plagiarism, the most common being plagiarism. In a sense it’s the least impactful in terms of perceptions from the outside; it clutters the research record and it’s effectively an act of stealing credit.

Falsification and fabrication are less common but have a far greater impact on the research record and on perception. Unlike plagiarism, falsification and fabrication involve introducing incorrect data; this has a knock-on effect on every subsequent study.

Research is incremental, so if things go wrong it affects everything built on what’s been published. I’m working on a case now, concerned with falsification of data, which involves the retraction of some papers. One of the papers has already been cited 89 times; that’s 89 other papers based on falsified data that have been affected.

It’s also a waste of funds and a waste of time showing the data are wrong. Look at the falsified cold fusion claims years ago: both the US and UK governments spent a huge amount of money trying to find out if they were true or not.

What do you think makes a researcher choose to behave unethically?

Core valuesSome people may just be dishonest. Occasionally you’ll get people who may have come up with a theory and don’t want to admit they were wrong, in which case it’s a pride issue. Other people may take a little shortcut, then start taking bigger and bigger shortcuts and it builds up – it’s a slippery slope and if they get away with it, it feels more acceptable.

Pressure plays a big part too. There’s an increasing competitiveness out there; as a researcher there’s pressure for you to have a certain number of first author papers in high impact journals to get tenure. This encourages shortcuts. It’s not just a question of research integrity, but also of bad practice. An estimated 25 percent of all research results in the biomedical sciences are not reproducible – that’s a huge amount. We’re seeing an increase in what could be called “sloppy science”.

What action can be taken in response to a case of misconduct?

In many cases, papers can be retracted and investigations often lead to disciplinary action. We also have the power to revoke doctorates. Well-known cases, such as that of Dutch social psychologist Diederik Stapel, who manipulated data in more than 50 papers, have involved suspension and dismissal.

When public money is involved, funding agencies can take researchers to court for misconduct, as they have effectively misappropriated public money. In some cases, primarily in the US and South Korea, disciplinary action has moved to the criminal court system. In 2006, Hwang Woo-suk was charged with embezzlement and bioethics law violations following his falsified human cloning claims, which had been published in Science in 2005.

Is there more that publishers could do to minimize the chances of a case going this far?

COPEScientific publishers have to set out their requirements and standards very clearly so everyone understands them. Most journals belong to the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), which has fairly clear guidelines. I think it’s always good to be part of a worldwide approach operating to worldwide standards.

The challenge with the publisher’s role is that if a case comes up through them, they have no legal standing and can’t take direct action because the researchers involved are employees of institutions. One important role the publisher can play is in information sharing and liaising with the institutions and funding bodies concerned.

Three years ago I worked on a case referred to us by Elsevier, of someone who hacked into the reviewer database of a particular journal to add to reviews words like ‘the manuscript should cite paper XYZ.’ It wasn’t research misconduct per se, but an attempt to increase citations unethically. We had to work together to share all the relevant information so I could take action.

Author biography

Tony MayerTony Mayer, a geologist by education and training, worked at Leicester University and University College London before joining the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). After a spell in the USA, he returned to NERC before moving to the European Science Foundation (ESF) in Strasbourg. From there he moved to Brussels as Director of COST (the European Cooperation in Science and Technology research networking structure), then to Singapore, where he now works part time as Research Integrity Officer at the Nanyang Technological University. He Co-Chaired the First and Second World Conferences in Research Integrity and will do so again for the Fifth World Conference, to be held in Amsterdam in 2017. He is also Treasurer and Governing Board Member of Euroscience – the European science association which is a bottom-up individual membership organization that runs the biennial EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF).

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