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Scientific misconduct in Europe: a confusing situation

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Scientific misconduct is a real problem, although in many countries it is still underestimated. Fabrication or falsification of data, altered images, plagiarism and other bad practices can affect the scientific community, compromising the public's trust in scientific practice as a whole. Cases of scientific misconduct are increasing worldwide, at a rate much higher than that of global scientific production: according to a report published in Nature, from 2001 to 2011, articles already published in scientific journals and then retracted have increased by about 10-fold, even though the number of published papers has risen by only 44%. About half of these retractions were cases of suspected scientific misconduct.

What are different countries doing to tackle the problem? In United States there is the Office of Research Integrity (ORI), established in 1992, an agency of the Department of Public Health and Scientific Research that has the task to prevent, monitor and report scientific misconduct, and to draw up self-regulation codes. In Europe, something similar has been done very recently:  the European Science Foundation presented the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity during the second World Conference on Research Integrity that took place in Montreal in 2010. The Code contains guidelines for good scientific practice, and methods to prevent and control negative behaviors. However, as is specified in the text, “it is not a body of law, but rather a canon for self-regulation” and “it is not intended to replace existing national or academic guidelines, but to represent a Europe-wide agreement on a set of principles and priorities for the research community”. For these reasons, although more and more scientific institutions and academic organizations have put in place structures to promote research integrity, in many European countries the decisions of research integrity authorities are still not legally strong.

A recent study published on The Lancet contains an analysis of the guidelines on research integrity in the 27 countries of the European Union (plus Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Norway and Iceland). The study shows a very fragmented scenario: Denmark and Norway are the only two countries to have a specific law on scientific misconduct, while other countries, in addition to not having laws about this topic, have guidelines in which scientific misconduct is defined and judged in different ways. For example, in Sweden carelessness is considered more serious than fabrication of data, while according to the guidelines of Finland is exactly the opposite, and fabrication of data is considered equivalent to fraud. Moreover, in twelve countries, including Italy, it was not possible to identify or analyze any guideline.

In recent years several studies on scientific misconduct have been produced (the most important were published on PLoS ONE in 2009 and on PNAS in 2012), but studies about direct and indirect economic damages caused by scientific misconduct have not yet been conducted. The economic impact, especially in case of fraud carried out for years, may be very large and difficult to quantify. Unfortunately, an article published in April 2014 on European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, significantly entitled Fraud in science: a plea for a new culture in research, says that “despite numerous cases of research misconduct being made public, this issue is still a taboo topic among the scientific community”.

Attention towards scientific misconduct by media, rather than the structural problems mentioned above, concerns isolated cases that arouse the interest of public. One of the first cases to cause a stir was that of Malcolm Pearce, a British obstetric surgeon who in 1994 published two papers in British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology: in the first he claimed to have replanted an embryo of an ectopic pregnancy, stating that this had led to the birth of a healthy child; in the second he said he had conducted a trial of two hundred women with polycystic ovary syndrome treated for recurrent miscarriage. Both studies were totally invented. In 1998, another British surgeon, Andrew Wakefield, published a fraudolent research paper in The Lancet in which he argued that there was a correlation between MMR vaccine and autism. Falsifications and manipulations conducted in biomedical field are more attractive to media: scientific misconduct in this area can have a strong impact on the public opinion. In addition, practical applications based on research falsified or manipulated may involve risks to the health of people. It is the case, for example, of Joachim Boldt, German anesthesiologist. He was considered for years as a luminary in the context of research on colloids; then he was accused of having falsified 89 of 102 published works between 1999 and 2010. The retraction of such a huge amount of work has obviously had a big echo, but also far-reaching effects on clinical practice. In February 2013, JAMA published a meta-analysis that showed that fraudulent studies of Bolt have put at risk seriously ill patients.

What is Europe doing to tackle scientific fraud and to reduce the possibility of other cases like that of Joachim Boldt? The European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity has proved ineffective: in the study published on The Lancet cited above, it is pointed out that “the observed heterogeneity in guidelines within and between European countries results in a confusing situation”. Among the projects included in Horizon 2020, this problem is located in one topic within Call for Developing governance for the advancement of Responsible Research and Innovation. One of the ambitious goals of the topic, called Ethics in Research: Promoting Integrity, is “to assess the possibility to unify the codes, principles and methods at EU and international level”. We will see.

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