LONDON (Reuters) - More than one in 10 British-based scientists or doctors have witnessed colleagues intentionally altering or fabricating data during their research, according to a survey by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) on Thursday.
The survey, which collated more than 2,700 responses, also found that 6 percent of scientists said they were aware of possible research misconduct at their institution that had not been properly investigated.
The results suggest “research misconduct is alive and well in the UK,” the BMJ said in a statement, and highlights the need for better systems to deter, detect, and investigate it.
According to BMJ editor-in-chief Fiona Godlee, who wrote a commentary about the findings, high profile cases of misconduct have led many other countries, including the United States, Canada, Sweden, Norway and Poland, to create formal mechanisms for overseeing research integrity.
“Why does the United Kingdom have no plans to do the same?” she wrote.
The survey, which was conducted via email and is ongoing, has so far received responses to 31 percent, or 2,782 of the 9,036 emails delivered to researchers.
The doctors were asked whether they had “witnessed or have first-hand knowledge of UK-based scientists or doctors inappropriately adjusting, excluding, altering or fabricating data during their research or for the purposes of publication,” - to which 13 percent said yes.
Godlee, whose journal has long been campaigning for greater scrutiny of scientific research and greater transparency in clinical trials, said the results exposed as myth the idea that research misconduct was very rare in Britain.
One of the most high-profile and damaging cases in recent years involved Andrew Wakefield, the now-disgraced British doctor who researchers believe falsified data for a 1998 study which convinced thousands of parents that MMR (measles mumps and rubella) vaccines are linked to autism.
Wakefield was exposed and struck off the medical register in Britain in 2010 after his paper was discredited and withdrawn by the Lancet, which originally published the research.
Godlee said there was “a prevailing view within the UK’s research establishment that we don’t have a problem; that a major global scandal like Wakefield’s ... is a one off.”
The survey’s results tell a different story, she said.
“There are enough known or emerging cases to suggest that the UK’s apparent shortage of publicly investigated examples has more to do with a closed, competitive, and fearful academic culture than with Britain’s researchers being uniquely honest,” she said. “MMR may indeed be an extreme example, but it is not an isolated case.”
Godlee was scheduled to present the survey’s results at a meeting hosted by the BMJ and the UK’s Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), which is seeking a consensus among institutions and funders towards tackling misconduct in Britain.
Elizabeth Wager, COPE’s chair, said the findings chimed with her committee’s experience: “We see many cases of institutions not cooperating with journals and failing to investigate research misconduct properly,” she said in a statement.
Godlee said her journal had been told of junior academics being advised to keep concerns to themselves to protect their careers, being bullied into not publishing their findings, or having their contracts terminated when they spoke out.
“UK science and medicine deserve better. Doing nothing is not an option,” she said.