Scientific misconduct & its effect on the medical literature

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Last Update

  • Updated.jpg 15 July 2017


See also Bioethics | Critical appraisal | Ethics and the health librarian | Journal clubs | Open data | Scientific writing | Submitting to an academic journal

"...Scientific misconduct is the violation of the standard codes of scholarly conduct and ethical behavior in professional scientific research. A Lancet review on Handling of Scientific Misconduct in Scandinavian countries provides the following sample definitions: (reproduced in The COPE report 1999.); Danish definition: "Intention or gross negligence leading to fabrication of the scientific message or a false credit or emphasis given to a scientist"; Swedish definition: "Intention[al] distortion of the research process by fabrication of data, text, hypothesis, or methods from another researcher's manuscript form or publication; or distortion of the research process in other ways."

Scientific misconduct is defined as "...the violation of standard codes in scholarly conduct and ethical behaviours in professional scientific research...". When empirical research is found to be undermined by scientific fraud and/or misconduct, the resulting publications must be removed (or tagged as retracted) from various online databases such as PubMed. To see the extent to which scientific publications are found to be fraudulent and must be retracted, see Retraction Watch and Rise of the retractions. Scientific misconduct has an extremely deleterious effect on the medical literature; medical research requires strict adherence to high ethical standards in science and those established within the scientific community.

Clinician researchers are expected to follow the norms and practices that are deemed appropriate for practicing medicine and conducting clinical studies. Any breaches or lapses in following standards may result in charges of misconduct for principal investigators and their colleagues. Appropriate conduct includes scrutinizing your own work (and the work of others), and aiming for 100% honesty. This extends to giving credit where due to co-researchers, peers and graduate students as appropriate. If any researcher appears to have contravened the ethical guidelines in the field, a fair process should be in place to deal with the complaint. If researchers do not adhere to the rules set out by a community of scientists, misconduct may be the result. Scientific misconduct seems to be on the rise but is actually rare. Medical librarians must be keenly-attuned to the many examples in the literature that have been retracted due to scientific misconduct. Thus it may be necessary to alert researchers who are doing reviews of the literature. Many scientists, for example, may be unsure about how to check for this or unaware that a piece of published research has been retracted (Neale, 2010). Some in fact have been found to cite this research long after it has been shown to be invalid. During a twelve year period from 1997 to 2009, 1164 articles were retracted in PubMed.

Top ten (10) sources of misconduct

Misconduct in biomedicine can take many forms; several points below are ethical in nature, however almost all have lead to cases of scientific misconduct:

  • Bribery is the use of financial (or other) payments for favours; also, using threats or coercion to receive assistance in formal academic work i.e., obtaining test answers on an exam, getting published, etc.
  • Cheating is the attempt to get assistance in formal academic work such as for assignments, exams or writing
  • Deception is the intentional provision of false information to instructors, editors or peers in formal academic work
  • Fabrication is the purposeful falsification of data, information and citation in formal research
  • Impersonation is the use of someone's identity to get (or seek to get) advantages in academic work
  • Plagiarism is the reproduction of the work of other authors (persons, organizations, communitie, including anonymous authors) without proper citing of their work
  • Professorial misconduct is the use of one's office to provide (or receive) favours from others, students and peers; instructors, editors or peers
  • Research bias is when researchers interpret findings in a biased way to support their hypotheses, and / or influence the results of their study to portray certain outcomes
  • Sabotage is the intentional act of disrupting another person's academic work, interrupting experiments, falsely engaging in malicious review, cutting pages out of library books, etc.
  • Unethical conduct is the type of conduct that violates or falls below the professional standards of a profession, such as in medicine and librarianship

Pharmacy literature has higher % of misconduct

Samp et al (2012) showed that nearly three-quarters of the 742 papers identified from 2000-2011 were retracted because of data falsification. Other forms of fraud include outright fabrication, questionable veracity, unethical author conduct and blatant plagiarism. While these studies are a small percentage overall, health professionals rely on drug evidence to make treatment recommendations. The paper found that a considerable number of the retracted papers could be attributed to two authors in Japan and Germany.

Poehlman case

Eric Poehlman was a University of Vermont nutrition researcher whose case is now used as a textbook example of scientific misconduct. He had built a reputation as an authority on the metabolic changes that accompany aging, particularly during menopause. Publishing more than 200+ journal articles during his career, his papers included research on the genetics of obesity, the impact of exercise, and followed human subjects over time to document changes in their physiology. However, his career unravelled when misconduct was detected in his work, and he was exposed for fabrication of falsification of data by a former University of Vermont lab technician. (See Dalton, 2006).

Appraising papers may protect against fraud

Critical appraisal is a process where the quality of research and, ultimately its validity and generalizability, is assessed. This is an important skill for every scientist and researcher, and may prevent errors from being perpetuated. See also Critical thinking

  • When there is a lot of attention granted to new research, be extra critical of the study findings; this is where a lot of misconduct is found (Furman, 2012)
  • Research questions require appropriate study designs; the best study design for evaluating medical treatments is the randomized controlled trial (RCT) (the gold standard)
  • Be aware that bias can creep into any methodology, included the so-called gold standard
  • It's critical to perform regular appraisal of scientific research and to assess for methodological weaknesses
  • When the medical evidence is deliberately distorted, new techniques such as forensic appraisal using open data are emerging
  • Methods used for unethical marketing of products include ghost writing, seed trials and off-label marketing
  • Of course, there is the issue of fraudulent manipulation of data/analysis
  • Cognitive critical appraisal for psychological pitfalls
  • Theories about normal biases that affect decision-making e.g. those of Daniel Kahneman
  • Theories about medical diagnosis and decision-making e.g. those of Pat Croskerry
  • Empirical evidence misplaced optimism about research results e.g. the work of John Ioannidis

Checklists for scientific quality

Scientists and librarians can use various checklists for critical appraisal, such as:

Tools used to uncover plagiarism

Several data-mining tools are now available to help detect plagiarism and fraud in the biomedical literature. In 2006, researchers at the University of Texas Medical Center developed Déjà Vu, an open-access database containing several thousand instances of duplicate publication. Dickinson (2011) reviews several text-mining tools in a recent paper; iThenticate and TurnItIn are two examples.

Key websites


  • retractions are not being noted by subsequent citers; retraction has little impact on subsequent citations
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