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Thursday, March 4, 1999 Published at 00:40 GMT


Faking it: Where science goes wrong

By BBC News Online's Jonathan Duffy

It's a general rule that 90% of material published in scientific research journals will turn out to be wrong. However, 90% of what goes on to appear in a textbook will be right.

That's simply the way it is with science - trial and error.

But even error has limits of credibility and concern has been mounting in the scientific community about the rising number of incidents of fraudulent findings.

On Thursday, the eminent scientific journal Nature publishes an article that looks at the different approaches countries are taking to tackle this thorny issue.

[ image: Researchers must compete for jobs and funding]
Researchers must compete for jobs and funding
It points out that while proven examples of scientific fraud are few and far between, a mass of undetected cases probably make it into print every year.

A survey published in American Scientist in 1993 found between 6% and 9% of respondents were personally aware of results that had been plagiarised or fabricated within their faculties. In 1995, a poll of almost 300 randomly selected researchers in Norway found 22% were aware of "serious breaches of research ethical guidelines" among colleagues.

The consensus is that while most do not intentionally set out to falsify their work, by cutting corners research is inevitably flawed.

Directly in the firing line is the biomedical science industry where competition is intense for a breakthrough in the lucrative drugs market and good results can do wonders for a company's share price.

Alchemy - the original fraud

In fairness, science has a long history of not exactly sticking to the point. Big question marks hang over the work done by Ptolemy, Isaac Newton and Gregor Mendel. And as for the "science" of alchemy ...

"The scientific community should be worried about fraud because it corrupts science and leads to public mistrust," says the renowned physicist and former editor of Nature, Sir John Maddox.

[ image: Doubt has been cast on some of Isaac Newton's results]
Doubt has been cast on some of Isaac Newton's results
"What tends to happen is that people are under pressure to get clean results because of issues such as funding and tenure."

Where researchers could once rely on secure university jobs and funding was a given, they now operate in an increasingly competitive environment.

These days contract work is the norm and funding is tied to results. Scientists find themselves always having to justify their jobs and that means pressure to publish findings as often as possible.

But reform on both these fronts is not the only answer, says Sir John.

Dual benefit of reform

"I think in the long-run that if pressure to publish were less strong it would also make scientists more productive because they wouldn't be worrying about these things."

Any drop-off in fabricated data would simply be a welcome spin off, he says.

"If you went back to where government used to give universities money and just expect them to spend it wisely, all they did was dish it out among their chums."

[ image: Biomedical science is a multi-billion pound business]
Biomedical science is a multi-billion pound business
And Sir John says that in Germany, where academic contracts tend to be longer, there is no evidence of less fraud.

One solution in Britain would be to follow the lead set by the United States and Scandinavian counties and set up an independent investigation agency.

But these have met with only very limited success. Cases become bogged down in legal arguments and the strike rate is low. Of the 1,000 or so allegations of misconduct received by the US Office of Research Integrity between 1993 and 1997, misconduct was judged in just 76.

Call for diligence

Sir John says greater diligence must be applied at an earlier stage.

"It's up to the scientific societies, such as the Biomedical Society, to police their own representatives. They exist to improve the reputation of their particular discipline."

The Medical Research Council has its own guidelines and encourages universities, scientific societies and other institutions to draw up similar rules for their members.

But until everyone plays fair, it seems science will be less than pure.

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Statistics of Scientific Fraud

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