On academic fraud

Categories: Open Access
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Published on: November 23, 2012

Mind-blowing, outrageous criminal fraud is rare in scientific research, but fraudulent practices such as turning a blind eye to contradictory data or failing to report anomalies are commonplace in laboratories worldwide. The building tide of retractions and the growing need to see all data, including anomalies and negative results, for big data experiments has brought these activities into the limelight, and preventing fraud in research has become an important issue for modern science.

Medical trials are frequently brought up in discussions about scientific fraud. It is easy to see why they are publicised, as inaccurate trials can cause thousands of people to have unnecessary or even harmful treatment. But fraud occurs in all science, and in non-medical research there are less emotive, but still serious, consequences of fraudulent activity.

I may be naïve, but I think in plant science and other areas, where the stakes are not as high as in medical research, most scientists do not deliberately reject data and only publish the minority of results that fit a favourite hypothesis. They do actively bury projects that just don’t go anywhere, as evidenced by many frustrated PhD students with a thesis full of negative results but no publications. As Ed Yong put it in the SpotOn London session ‘Fixing the Fraud,’ negative results are becoming an endangered species.

Causing someone to unwittingly replicate doomed experiments because you did not publish your perceived failed experiment may lead to wasted time and effort, but I would hesitate to call it fraud. An excellent example is described by Jim Caryl in his SciLogs blog The Gene Gym. Jim recently published his finding that a class of tetracyclin resistant genes identified in 1996 was actually a plasmid replication gene, and did not confer any kind of antibiotic resistance. The original authors did not set out to deceive, and scientists who used the gene in their research must have had negative results, which they did not publish. 

Another bad practice which I suspect is fairly common, to varying extents, is biased analysis of results. While this is definitely fraud, it has been overlooked up until now because of the need for conclusive, statistically significant data for papers. Again, Jim Caryl is an example – he struggled to get his important negative result published. Over the last decade, big data experiments requiring raw datasets have become the norm, and authors are usually obligated by their funders or by publishers to provide all their raw data. Yet frequently, datasets are not added to a suitable open access repository (Piowar, 2011), and a 2009 study showed that the rules governing open data are poorly enforced (Savage and Vickers, 2009).

At the SpotOn London session on Fixing the Fraud, the panelists briefly discussed the causes of fraud, pointing at the usual, and probably completely responsible, culprits: the pressure on researchers to publish in the most respected journal they can manage, and the requirements of journals who publish only positive results that point to significant, clear conclusions. (more…)

A very planty November

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Published on: November 23, 2012

November is turning out to be a busy month for the plant science community, and here is a round-up of what you might have missed and what is still to come.

Coming up

NIAB has been granted over £600 000 to provide a community wheat transformation service. This is an excellent opportunity for Arabidopsis researchers to test the application of their research in a commercial crop – around 25 transformations will be granted to model crop researchers. For more information, go to the NIAB website and see this poster. Applications will open shortly.

This year’s meeting of the Genetics Society Arabidopsis special interest group is organized by GARNet and will take place on Monday in Liverpool, focusing on next generation sequencing applications in plant science research. It’s too late to register, but you can see the abstracts here, and the presentation slides will be online soon after the day. We will be live tweeting from the workshop on #ngsplant.

The European Research Area Network for molecular plant science (ERA-CAPS) launched its first joint call on 19 November. Up to £6M of BBSRC funding is available to support UK researchers in ERA-CAPS consortia. The deadline for application is 15 February 2013.

London-dwelling people with an interest in policy will be interested in a new series of events run by the Society of Biology, Policy Lates. On Thursday there will be a debate at Charles Darwin House on Do we need more scientists in Parliament. It is a free event and is now full, but there is a waiting list. I expect there will be live tweeting under #policylates – so keep your Twitter tuned if you want to be there virtually, if not in person.

Recent goings on

The UK Plant Science Federation had its second annual general meeting on 5th November. I wrote a blog post on it for the UKPSF blog, and news from the meeting was also highlighted on this blog by Alan Jones.

I went to the Society of Biology Autumn Members Meeting, where I found out more about the Degree Accreditation Programme. If you feel that original research in UK undergraduate biology courses is poor, get involved by accrediting courses at your own institution, or signing up as an assessor.

The Higher Education team at the Society of Biology launched an Open Educational Resources website last Friday. All the resources on it are peer reviewed by experts, so they are top quality. You can download resources to use yourself, or submit your own resources so they can be used by other lecturers.

NIAB has been granted over £600 000 to provide a community wheat transformation service. This is an excellent opportunity for Arabidopsis researchers to test the application of their research in a commercial crop – around 25 transformations will be granted to model crop researchers. For more information, go to the NIAB website and see this poster. Applications will open shortly.

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November 2012

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