Reporting on Scientific Misconduct

Main building, University of Helsinki

I was in Helsinki, Finland last week, partly for discussions about the World Conference of Science Journalists-2013, which will be held in that very beautiful city next summer. And partly to give a presentation in a symposium on communicating science with integrity.

The symposium was held at the University of Helsinki's House of Letters and Science and I bring it up not to dwell on my talk but on one by Professor Ben Martin of the University of Sussex, titled "Whither research integrity? Plagiarism, self-plagiarism and coercive citation in an age of research assessment."  Martin's was an outstandingly good and profoundly troubling presentation based on his experience as editor of the journal, Research Policy. I'm providing a link to the program here; if you scroll down to his place in the schedule, you can access the powerpoint slides from his talk. Or you can find here a pdf of a recent paper by Martin, titled "Research Misconduct: Does Self-Policing Work?"

In the symposium, Martin did not provide an optimistic answer to that question: "If the academic community is not vigilant, the problem is only going to get worse." His own inquiries, he noted, had found "misconduct [ranging from self-plagiarism, to full-scale plagiarism, to fraudulent data] on a significant scale and growing." Martin, like others investigating the isssue, laid some of the blame on a a profession increasingly competiting for limited resources and for increasingly aggressive academic journal environment.

He cited, for instance, the relatively recent practice of "coercive citations" by journal editors, who accept papers only if the authors add citations that help increase the publication's recognition factor.  "Is this ethical behavior by editors?", asked Martin, citing a 2010 paper in the journal, Science, which looked at the practice particularly in the social sciences and identified some 175 journals that engaged in such practices.

"What we need," Martin said. "is for editors to be tough on authors, ban them from journals if they engage in misconduct. And for authors to refuse to do these gratitutous and unneccessary citations."

Why is this worth reviewing here at Tracker? Because we science journalists also need to be increasingly aware aware – and wary – of these issues in academic publishing. We're fortunate, of course, to be able to consult Ivan Oransky's outstandingly good blog, Retraction Watch, while doing our homework. If you take one look at this blog – say the most recent entry on withdrawal of a cassava protein paper for which "data could not be found" – and you'll realize that it should, unfortunately, be required reading. Or if you prefer a kind of big picture summary, The Guardian's Alok Jha just published a first-class overview of these issues: "False Positives: fraud and misconduct are threatening scientific research. "

It's also important to acknowledge that this represents a kind of minority report, the troubling actions of a small percentage of the research whole. Anyone who covers science knows how many researchers love their work and care passionately about getting it right. But anyone who covers science also knows that our job is to report fairly across the scientific spectrum. And that means these days, that we pay attention to the kind of warning flares I've cited here. And we hope – and this is certainly the hope raised by Martin at the Helsinki symposium – that by calling attention to them we help correct the problem.

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