William Reville: Fraud is now the biggest enemy of science

Scientists are not required to subscribe to any universal code of ethics. This needs to change

The recent announcement (April 27th 2016) by Julianna LeMieux in the American Council on Science and Health bulletin caught my eye: "Full of shite: why a fecal transplant paper was retracted". The paper was retracted because it contained fraudulent data.

The retraction is just one eye-catching example of the type of misconduct that is plaguing science. If this misconduct isn't confronted and eliminated, the entire scientific enterprise could crash.

Before I continue, a brief word about fecal transplants. The human gut is colonised by a large and complex mixture of micro-organisms, mostly bacteria (the average adult gut hosts about 1.2 kg of bacteria). This gut microbiome performs many vital functions for its human host, for example helping our digestion, training the immune system, producing vitamins and helping to regulate appetite.

Health problems can arise if the balance between the different types of bacteria in your gut gets disturbed. It is known that the bacterial spectrum in the gut of obese people is different to the spectrum in nonobese people. The question arises: are the bacteria in the obese gut causing the obesity or does obesity change the bacterial composition of the gut?

In the research in question, this was investigated by performing fecal transplants from obesity-prone and from obesity-resistant rats into rats that had no bacteria at all in their guts. This is now a particularly hot research area, and there is keen competition to publish papers. This work was published in Obesity (2014). The paper was retracted in May 2016 with the admission that one of the authors had forged data.

Misconduct in science is a huge problem. A review of the 2,047 biomedical and life science articles included in PubMed as retracted on May 3rd, 2012, revealed that only 21.3 per cent of the retractions were attributable to error. Sixty-seven per cent of retractions were attributable to misconduct, including fraud and suspected fraud (43.4 per cent), duplicate publication (14.2 per cent) and plagiarism (9.8 per cent). The percentage of scientific articles retracted because of fraud has risen tenfold since 1975 (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

Such misconduct is not confined to physics, chemistry and biology but is also widespread across the "softer" sciences such as psychology. Misconduct in psychology is reviewed by Tom Farsides and Paul Sparks in an article in the Psychologist of May 2016 arrestingly called "Buried in Bullshit".

The cause of misconduct in science is ordinary human weakness. The product of scientific research is the scientific paper, and scientific success and consequent career prospects are measured in terms of numbers of papers published and the perceived prestige of the journals in which the papers appear. So there is intense pressure to keep publication numbers high and handsome. The problem is that nature does not reveal her secrets easily or at an even pace. So when, as often happens, the researcher hits a lengthy dry patch in the research, temptation sets in to help things along with dodgy data.

Also, we are producing far too many PhDs in Ireland relative to the availability of jobs appropriate to this level of qualification. This leads to intense pressure on young PhD graduates to publish papers in order to compete for the few available jobs. It also forces many PhD graduates into careers that are inappropriate for PhD-level qualifications. For example, a primary degree is a sufficient qualification to become a laboratory technician, and yet almost every new technician post that arises in Irish universities nowadays is filled by a candidate with a PhD.

When truth and honesty are not upheld in scientific research, the enterprise fails. Despite this fact, scientists are not required to subscribe to any universal code of ethics. This is in sharp contrast to medicine with its long-standing tradition of newly qualified graduates taking the Hippocratic Oath. Although this oath is no panacea for all ills, it does signal a strong professional commitment to ethical standards and its cultural effect in the profession is strong. We badly need a special Hippocratic Oath for science.