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Right/wrong: The blurred lines of ethical publishing

The pressure to publish and the power struggle of paper authorships are very real factors in modern science – but can they potentially lead to the blurring of ethical lines? We speak to Dr Steven Bradshaw on why he believes there’s a grey zone between scientific dishonesty and good scientific practice

In early April young Japanese scientific researcher Haruko Obokata rose to fame after she published an apparently simple way to create stem cells. After others failed to reproduce the same results Haruko has been found guilty of misconduct by a committee charged with investigating her work.

Obokata authored two articles published in the scientific journal Nature in January but doubts about her findings were soon raised. Several discrepancies in her work were uncovered by researchers, these included accidental errors, plus possible plagiarism and images that appear to be manipulated.

Some scientists are uneasy about the research and the potential of fraudulent work, but others are also concerned about how Obokata has been treated, especially because there is still uncertainty despite the alleged problems with the studies. Also, Obokata was not alone in developing this manuscript – there were a number of other senior researchers listed as co-authors, raising questions about authorship.

Dr Steven Bradshaw – former Medical Editor at the Nature Publishing Group – feels that research ethics are multifaceted and suffer from a lack of definition; they’re also subject to interpretation, misinterpretation and being taken massively out of context by those less familiar with the scientific research industry. Furthermore, there’s always a risk that the process and outcomes of such high-publicity investigations may cause apprehension for other researchers when it comes to publishing their legitimate work, through fear of scrutiny.

He’s convinced that some scientists are worried about the very real danger that systems used to investigate researchers could be used against them, particularly by competitors.

Most authors are not well informed on research ethics, says Bradshaw: “It isn’t addressed in undergraduate or postgraduate education and formal guidelines are scant and open to interpretation. This can cause serious issues as most researchers generally learn about ethics via word of mouth and there are as many bad role models in research as good ones.”

Publishing, or the number of publications in decent, peer-reviewed journals, is widely used to measure the performance of researchers and there is a well-known relationship between funding input and research output. Also, present academic rewards systems create a pressure to publish as frequently as possible to gain seniority.

This pressure is linked to unfortunate practices including ‘salami slicing’, or reporting the same study in instalments, duplicate publication and listing authors who were only, at best, peripheral in the research and/or manuscript development.

Fraudulent results can mislead the direction of clinical research, resulting in wasted research funds, time and effort and may even influence dangerous interventions. Accusing others of research fraud for the purpose of ones’ own interests should also be looked at as scientific misconduct.

Twenty years ago there were no plagiarism screening tools. It is quite possible that plagiarism in the early days of medical publishing was rife, but it would have been virtually impossible to detect. The main issue is in preventing copyright infringement, and many journal editors use iThenticate or CrossCheck to rapidly verify the originality of a piece of work. “It is worth noting that in the real world, most editors will usually accept articles where there may be up to 20% of ‘duplicate’ content flagged up by plagiarism screening,” says Bradshaw. “This is because journal editors have the pragmatic view there are only so many ways of describing the same thing and there is a definite difference between recycling an authors’ own words and deliberately copying the work (and sometimes results) of others.”

Writing a manuscript is especially difficult for researchers whose first language is not English, and it’s important to support such researchers and not increase the number of hurdles to publishing.

“Most cases of alleged plagiarism are not reported by journal editors, instead it is mostly ‘concerned’ colleagues who were troubled enough to pay a fee to scan someone else’s work. Usually alleged plagiarism affects researchers who have gained public attention and managed to ruffle the feathers of others,” explains Bradshaw.

“In the case of Dr Obokata the conclusions of the investigation have come out rather quickly. Research is a very competitive arena, and there will always be suspicion of new ground-breaking findings; we have to be open to the fact that quite a few feathers were mostly likely ruffled when Dr Obokata’s work rose to eminence.”

But scientists are not alone in conducting research and writing papers, surely senior scientists also have a duty of care to their junior colleagues?   “While we can’t condone research fraud in any way, hanging scientists out to dry because of accidental mistakes is also not acceptable and there needs to be further dialogue on this,” insists Bradshaw. “Advances in medical science wouldn’t ever happen unless we actively challenge and disprove what our peers and predecessors had previously concluded, based on whatever findings they had at that time. To penalise scientists is one sure way to prevent the discoveries and cures of tomorrow, when what should be happening is that society encourages research and accepts that researchers, being human, can make mistakes”.

There is a further difficulty here however – most ground breaking research is done by researchers who aren’t native English language speakers; however, all the mainstream medical and science journals are written in English – scientists must, therefore, conform to western standards, which is a huge hurdle.

“There are many brilliant researchers who are hindered from communicating their findings because English is not their first language, and they often rely on translators, medical writers and editors to develop just one article, all of which takes time. Particularly for such international authors there ought to be a reconsideration of what ‘plagiarism’ actually means; particularly ‘self-plagiarism’.”

“We have to ask if it’s more important to rapidly communicate a new cure for cancer, which might mean using some of the text from the same author’s last publication to place the new findings in context and gain rapid publication, or, alternatively, delay publishing for months whilst paraphrasing sentences just to satisfy the regulators of publication ethics?”

Bradshaw would like to see scientists resisting the culture of ‘publish or perish’ and, perhaps more importantly if a cultural shift is to occur, to be supported in doing so by their colleagues, peers and managers. Courses in ethical scientific practice are available and many journals now require a declaration of authorship, to verify the level of involvement of all the authors listed in the author lists. All authors have a responsibility to ensure that the findings reported in a paper reflect their opinions, and in the case of a research report, the findings of the studies to which the paper refers. “It is a well-known fact that on publications with multiple authors, it is typically one of the last authors on the author list (not the first) who is the most senior…in publications with multiple authors, it is essential that all authors have been involved in the development of the manuscript, and have read and approve the submission”.

Unfortunately, scientific societies and journals broadcast allegations of research misconduct throughout the scientific community and to the mass media, which can have devastating consequences for the researcher(s) or others involved.

“Editors are not policemen and there should not be a culture whereby investigations turn into witch hunts against researchers. We have a culture of innocent until proven guilty and at the end of the day scientists are human.”

Bradshaw concludes: “The only ethical principle which has made science possible is that the truth shall be told all the time. Ethical publication will need to depend on there being an ethical investigation.” For those working in the field it’s hard to argue.

Further information
Guidance on this topic is offered by the following organisations:

  •  COPE (Committee of Publication Ethics)
  • OSTP (Office of Science and Technology Policy, USA)

Dr Steven Bradshaw is a former Medical Editor at the Nature Publishing Group and founder of Emedits Global, a company which provides consulting services to researchers on ethical research and publication practices. He is also European Director of Market Access Solutions (MKTXS), a global healthcare consulting firm.

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