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Thursday, 7 February, 2002, 16:53 GMT
'Ghostwritten' research claims
Research fraud
Measures to tackle research fraud are being put in place
There are fears that research is being twisted because doctors allow pharmaceutical firms to write biased academic papers in their names.

The problem may even affect scientific papers submitted to prestigious international journals.

It is suspected that some doctors are being paid many thousands of pounds to lend their reputation to articles with which they have had little involvement.

Sometimes a high-profile named "author" may not even have seen much of the data from which the study draws its conclusions.

The UK research establishment is attempting to crack down on misconduct.

The potential is that an ineffective or relatively weak drug will become registered for use on the basis of this analysis

Professor Michael Farthing, Cope
Professor Michael Farthing, the chairman of the Committee on Publication Ethics, says he knows of research, authored by well-respected doctors, in which the data has been manipulated to support a particular drug.

In one recent case, he says, challenging a suspicious paper led to its withdrawal from the journal he edits, only for it to be published soon afterwards in another.

He told BBC News Online: "The potential is that an ineffective or relatively weak drug will become registered for use on the basis of this analysis.

"That is probably uncommon, but it could skew the results of a meta-analysis - in which several studies on the same drug are looked at together."

Doctors and research centres are becoming aware of the potential damage research fraud can cause, he said.

"Doctors are signing off the material as bona fide, and there is a real responsibility on them.

"If they can't stand up and speak on its veracity, they are running the risk of research and publication misconduct."

However, the association which represents the UK pharmaceutical industry says that regulations have tightened significantly over the past 10 years.

Clampdown launched

Journal editors are currently mounting a campaign to stamp out research fraud.

Many of them sit on the UK Committee on Publication Ethics, whose code of conduct says that authors' contribution to scientific papers must be precisely detailed - alongside any conflicts of interest, such as sponsorship money from drugs' companies.

Professor Farthing said that journals in future might have to ask for full details of the way the study was set up to prevent pharmaceutical companies "shifting the goalposts" when positive results do not appear straight away.

The pharmaceutical industry is fiercely competitive, particularly in areas of medicine in which drugs are the predominant treatment, such as psychiatry.

Articles published in major journals can strongly influence which drug is chosen by doctors to treat their patients.

Tighter regulation

However, Richard Ley, from the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, said that if any doctor put his or her name to a paper without being involved in the research, they could be guilty of misconduct.

While pharmaceutical firms did pay for writers to use their skills to assist doctors writing up complex research data, he said, they did not twist the data to suit the commercial aims of the company involved.

If that was the case, he said, then scientists used by journals to review papers would detect the difference between the actual results and the conclusions of the paper.

If these allegations had been made 10 years ago, they might carry more credence - but certain aspects have been tightened up since then.

"From time to time it will happen - human beings are human beings."

See also:

23 Feb 01 | Health
Research misconduct warning
14 Jun 01 | Health
Fake drugs costing lives
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