Research integrity—have we made progress?

The Lancet
May 06, 2017 Volume 389 Number 10081 p1771-1858

Research integrity—have we made progress?
The Lancet
Published: 06 May 2017

This month there will be two important anniversaries related to research integrity. The first is the 20 year anniversary of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), celebrated at COPE’s European annual meeting in London, UK, on May 25. The second marks 10 years since the first World Conference on Research Integrity (WCRI) in Lisbon, Portugal, in 2007—to be held at the fifth WCRI in Amsterdam, Netherlands, May 28–31. More than 600 delegates will gather and present research on research integrity and debate current policies and initiatives, progress, and difficulties. The conference theme is transparency and accountability. So what have these initiatives and organisations achieved and what is the current state of research integrity?

Compared with 20 years ago there is undoubtedly more discussion and awareness of research misconduct. There is more research into research integrity and inappropriate research practice. And there is more guidance and support for those researchers, funders, institutions, and journals that want to have good policies, practices, and processes in place. However, there are depressingly familiar examples that show we still have a long way to go to strengthen research integrity and publication ethics. Every day, dubious new journals and conference organisers solicit papers and presentations for a fee. The rise of such predatory journals and conferences is a disappointingly unsavoury by-product of the open access business model.

On April 20, the publisher Springer retracted a record 107 papers from one journal (Tumor Biology) because they had been accepted after fake peer review. These papers were discovered after additional screening as a consequence of an earlier round of retractions, but clearly stronger editorial practices could have detected these fatal flaws before publication. And last week, the investigators of the Treatment of Preserved Cardiac Function Heart Failure with an Aldosterone Antagonist (TOPCAT) trial, originally published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2014, concluded in a correspondence letter in the journal that after further experiments the findings “arouse concerns regarding study conduct in Russia, and by implication, Georgia”—an example of a multicountry collaboration gone wrong.

Additionally, there are worrying signs that the research environment, which was highlighted at the last WCRI conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2015, as an important factor to promote and ensure responsible research, is becoming more competitive and less resilient. The uncertainty over long-term National Institute of Health funding in the USA sent shock waves through the scientific community. Similar concerns by Canadian scientists have emerged over the past few months where research funding is stagnating and increasingly linked to political priorities. And many researchers in the UK are concerned about European Union funding after Brexit.

So what can be done? A new report by the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine—Fostering Integrity in Research, released on April 11—produced best practice checklists and issued 11 recommendations. Most of these are obvious and do not cover new ground, such as whistleblower protection and improved education. What the report does add beyond summarising the state of integrity and best practice recommendations is clearer and stronger language. It terms what has previously been called questionable or inappropriate research practices “detrimental practices”, recognising these to be detrimental to the research enterprise. Similarly, the World Association of Medical Editors earlier this year argued that a better name for predatory journals would be pseudo-journals to clearly identify them as destinations that researchers should avoid. And when there are outcries about the so-called reproducibility crisis, it should be understood that reproducibility is used in many different ways, which leads to confusion and disagreement. Steven Goodman concluded in Science Translational Medicine in June, 2016, that “we need to move toward a better understanding of the relationship between reproducibility, cumulative evidence, and the truth of scientific claims”.

The Amsterdam conference theme is a good one. Transparency and accountability are the fundamental principles for research integrity. Transparency in describing all aspects of the research process, from planning, proposing, performing, and reporting, goes a long way towards allowing better selection, scrutiny, and use of research. Such quality assessment needs to be at the heart of academic reward. What we do need also, however, is transparency of policies for all involved in research —institutions, funders, and journals alike—to allow a similar level of assessment and scrutiny by others. Accountability needs to be shared by all