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Wednesday, September 8, 1999 Published at 09:31 GMT 10:31 UK


Clampdown on research fraud

Not all medical research is above board

Guidelines to clamp down on malpractice and fraud in medical research have been published by a group of leading editors.

The guidance has been drawn up by the Committee on Public Ethics (COPE), formed in 1997 by a group of medical editors who were becoming increasingly concerned about the suspect nature of some studies submitted for publication.

Since it was established COPE has considered 56 cases of possible misconduct.

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Problems include failure to obtain appropriate approval for research from local ethics committees, who examine whether the research is justified and does not harm patient care.

Some researchers also fail to get the necessary consent from people taking part in scientific studies, and others have been found to make up their results, and plagiarise the work of others.

Another issue is redundant publication, in which a paper is published which repeats data already contained in previously published studies. It is estimated that around one in five scientific researc papers have already been published before in essentially the same format.

The new COPE guidelines list eight sanctions that can be taken if misconduct is proven against a researcher.

The most serious course of action is to report the matter to the General Medical Council for full investigation.

Other sanctions open to an editor include:

  • Sending a letter of reprimand and warning as to future conduct
  • Refusal to accept future submissions from the guilty party
  • Publication of a notice of redundant publication or plagiarism
  • Publication of an editorial giving full details of the misconduct

Getting tough

Professor Michael Farthing, chairman of COPE and editor of the journal Gut, said while the guidelines carried no statutory force, it was hoped they would send a message that editors were getting tough.

He said: "If we allow sloppiness to continue we will get an erosion of the biomedical literature.

"We want to be as certain as possible that what we read in the biomedical literature is true."

Professor Farthing said it was impossible to estimate the level of misconduct in research.

"All I can say is that I was shocked in my first two to three months as editor to see things I did not want to see from people I knew.

"I had no idea how to deal with it. Editors tended just to reject a manuscript and that was the end of it, but simply rejecting material is not really fufilling the proper duties of being an editor.

"Hopefully this guidance will show that editors are getting serious about this and we are not the soft touch that people may have seen us as in the past."

Professor Farthing said in some instances researchers had simply adopted sloppy habits, and were not out purposefully to mislead.

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