If you read that researchers were faking X-rays, retinal scans, and lab tests in their work, you might think — or hope — that it was something out of science fiction. But as Charles Seife reported in a JAMA Internal Medicine paper earlier this year, that has all happened in real life, and the Food and Drug Administration is covering it up. “The FDA has repeatedly hidden evidence of scientific fraud not just from the public,” Seife wrote in a Slate piece about the findings, “but also from its most trusted scientific advisers, even as they were deciding whether or not a new drug should be allowed on the market.”
The problem isn’t limited to the United States. Reports of research misconduct by Canadian researchers are heavily redacted, with names of people, institutions, and even relevant journal articles blacked out.
But why is publicity for science fraudsters important? Well, consider the obverse: Why do they deserve protection from the public eye? Research cheats are no different from other bad actors who misuse taxpayer dollars. Ignominy can be a powerful deterrent against the temptation to cut corners. And across the globe, we could use more of it.
There are some bright spots. One US oversight agency, the Office of Research Integrity (ORI), annually posts the names of the dozen or so researchers it concludes violated ethical standards on the federal dime. (That’s a small fraction of the total number of scientific miscreants, and it’s worth nothing that another agency, the National Science Foundation, doesn’t post names.) China, too, seems to be moving in the right direction. In recent months, several of China’s scientific oversight agencies have announced get-tough measures on research misconduct, including requiring some fraudsters to return state funding and stronger policing efforts to root out fraudsters.
There are four practical reasons that other countries need to follow suit:
- Research fraud is a powerful drain on resources. When studies are based on bogus data, the fruitless efforts to replicate them by other laboratories consume months, and even years, and represent substantial dollars wasted. Knowing whose work is trustworthy — or, at least, whose likely isn’t — can prevent those frustrating goose chases by colleagues. The same goes for granting agencies throwing good money after bad scientists, as in the instance of a Canadian researcher who, officials claim, used $1 million in grant money as “a piggy bank to finance personal travels and his private business.”
- Inaccuracies in the scientific record last a long time. Although journals can retract articles that carry fraudulent data, the process is hardly quick. On average, it takes 36 months for a journal to retract a paper — and the record, by our count, is 27 years. During that time, the article continues to be cited by other scientists, who are unaware that misconduct has occurred. However, by making the names of dishonest researchers public, other scientists gain a valuable signal about the integrity, or lack thereof, of that person’s results.
- Prospective employers and journals have a right to know the academic track record of the people whom they’re considering hiring, and whose work they’re reviewing for publication. For instance, in 2011, Canadian journalist Margaret Munro exposed how a scientist who left one institution after faking data later landed a new job overseas that didn’t appear to be aware of the fraud.
- Science, unlike politics, is rarely if ever local. Researchers pay close attention to the work of their colleagues in labs across the hall and in countries across the globe — gaining insights for future studies, ideas for new methods of experimentation, even fuel for the competitive engine that often drives discovery. If those insights are built on fraudulent or otherwise unreliable data, well, the international edifice of science is compromised.
Fortunately, in the case of Canada, newly elected prime minister Justin Trudeau — who has unmuzzled government scientists more generally — has some momentum on which to build. The Panel on Responsible Conduct of Research, Canada’s federal authority on scientific ethics, recently floated the idea that universities and other provincial institutions should make public the names of investigators found to have committed research misconduct.
As Nature editors wrote in 2011 about Munro’s work: “Canada’s practices take privacy concerns too far.” The same could be said of most approaches around the globe. Privacy doesn’t trump transparency when public money, or public health, is on the line.
So governments, lift the veil. Our scientific institutions deserve better.