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Irish Science Ethics: Poachers and Gamekeepers

June 19, 2014

For most Irish scientists, being lectured by the government’s Chief Scientific Advisor Mark Ferguson about research ethics is a decidedly uncomfortable experience. Recently Ferguson, as Director General of  Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), took to the pages of Nature to announce the launch of SFI’s new audit system to check that funded research is being conducted with integrity.

For those worried about a draconian crackdown, fear not, as the auditors will not investigate misconduct cases, nor will they have “deep” scientific knowledge of the area audited. In fact, the whole thing, according to Ferguson, will be “fairly procedural.”

In this post we ask how would the current research quality assurance system cope with a serious case of suspected research misconduct?

Irish National Policy Statement

voodoo scienceThe SFI announcement coincides with the launch of the National Policy Statement on Ensuring Research Integrity in Ireland, to which SFI (and a long list of Irish institutions) have signed up. The document contains broadly the same policy position as the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity, with added full-page full-colour images . Both rely heavily on the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Best Practices for Ensuring Scientific Integrity and Preventing Misconduct, which contains a wealth of fascinating discussion.

Research misconduct is defined to include fabrication, falsification and plagiarism – FFP for short. These, along with unethical treatment of subjects, constitute the most serious forms of research misconduct. There are lesser forms of misconduct although in the National Policy Statement the term is watered down.

Thus the artificial proliferation of publications (“salami slicing”) is considered by the OECD as “Publication-related misconduct” while the Irish Policy Statement refers to it as “poor practice.” Whatever you call it, such lesser offenses, repeatedly committed, may indicate more serious misconduct.

Discomfort

Alligator eggs on the cover of Science in June 1982

Would you like salami with your alligator eggs?

The discomfort for Irish scientists upon seeing the Chief Scientific Advisor posturing about research conduct stems from the recently discovered New York Times article “Journals combat scientists’ deceit in submitting study reports” in which one Mark W.J. Ferguson featured prominently.

As we recounted in a previous post, the young scholar had engaged in duplicate publication, a form of misconduct and had been forced to write a letter of apology.  To make matters worse, in the apology Ferguson fails to acknowledge that simultaneously submitting the same paper to different journals is unacceptable.

The Policy Gap

Putting aside the trials and tribulations of our Chief Scientific Advisor, what about the National Policy Statement itself? The document contains much that is laudable: an emphasis on training as prevention, clear definitions and the presentation of generally accepted best practice.

Of course, there is the mealy-mouthed downgrading of “misconduct” from the original OECD report to “poor practice”  which probably reflects the middle-class sensibilities of the enormous committee that drew up the Statement.

The main failure, however, is in the thorny issue of enforcement and, in particular, how suspected research misconduct is to be investigated. The document states that the only legal basis for such an investigation lies within the  individual institutions in which the researchers are employed: “because of the possibility of sanction, this statutory process is the only process through which an employee of a University may be disciplined for any reason.” The same legal constraints exist for misconduct investigations in the Institutes of Technology.

On the other hand, the OECD report argues that in the European context, governments cannot leave the oversight of significant research funds solely to the institutions themselves, and it identifies different models for dealing with allegations of misconduct. The Report notes that the establishment of a national body for dealing with investigations is suited to “countries whose scientific communities are small, and where it may be difficult to establish committees of impartial scientists, free of personal conflicts of interest.”

While it may be correct about the current legal basis, the Irish National Policy Statement makes no reference to the desirability of having an overarching statutory structure to ensure full, proportionate and transparent investigation procedures are implemented. Since this area is given lengthy debate in the OECD Report, its exclusion  from the Irish document is conspicuous.

The Institute of Technology Problem

The vacuum created by the absence of a national framework is supposedly to be filled by each third level institution investigating itself, whenever and however it sees fit. With the ongoing Galway Mayo IT and IT Tralee plagiarism fiascos, few would claim that self-regulation is appropriate for the IoT sector when it comes to research awards.

The recent Institutes of Technology Ireland Research Policy Document used the  word “integrity”  just once – “the highest standards of research integrity will be maintained with IoT commitment to the nationally agreed policy on this issue” – so perhaps they see no pressing need for action on research misconduct at all.

The Nightmare Scenario

RetractedDick Ahlstrom in discussing the National Policy Statement gave thanks that Ireland has not had a high-profile case of science fraud. Is this because it doesn’t happen here or is it because we have no protective disclosures measures in place, as suggested in the recent call by the Higher Education Authority for the Universities to set up procedures for whistle-blowing?

Let’s consider a hypothetical situation that the current system would struggle to handle, a situation that clearly delineates the weaknesses of existing regulation. The putative research project involved is in an area prioritized by the government, so research money has been relatively easy to come by – claims of potential spin-offs abound.

Funding to the tune of tens of millions is accumulated from SFI and other national funding mechanisms, as well as from European grants. The research is carried out by the collaboration of two research groups, one in a University, and one in an Institute of Technology.

After a number of years it becomes clear that the data in some of the published papers is dubious. Retractions follow as journals, made aware of the problems, begin to demand that the authors remove incorrect results. Further evidence emerges of duplication, misuse of data and suspicions of data manipulation. Doubt is now cast on the results of dozens of papers with scores of co-authors across the research groups. To make matters worse, the questionable data has been used in the dissertations of a number of postgraduates at both institutions.

Into The Quagmire

At what point would the current Irish system set about investigating the above nightmare scenario? And who would do the investigating? According to the National Policy Statement no one institution could investigate it. According to SFI, the funding agencies have no role in such matters, other than to check procedures in a “constructive, polite and educative” manner.

If the IoT does not have delegated authority at postgraduate level, the accrediting body, Quality and Qualifications Ireland, must also be involved to investigate the dissertations. The terms of reference for such involvement would have to be written during a rolling multi-agency crisis.

The result, without extreme care being taken by all parties concerned, would likely be a prodigious mess.

Detecting Misconduct

Number of retractions since 1977 and cause of retraction (Fang et al. PNAS 2012)

Number of retractions since 1977 and cause of retraction (Fang et al. PNAS 2012)

If the above scenario seems far-fetched, recent biology research retractions show that it is actually hard to rule out. For example, in the Obokata stem cell controversy, retractions and plagiarism claims have forced Waseda University to audit all of its Science and Engineering dissertations.

Or how about the case of Mart Bax, a retired Dutch professor in the social sciences who it is now reckoned faked 61 papers. Strangely, his career in fabrication appears to have started with his 1970’s PhD on corruption in Irish politics which is set in a made-up town he refers to as “Patricksville”! A recently released report on the investigation into Bart’s work by the Free University of Amsterdam uncovers the deception in great detail.

The question then is: how prevalent is Irish science misconduct? And can we expect decisive action from our institutions along the lines of Waseda or the Free University?

Internationally, there has been a growing awareness of the dangers of science research misconduct. In tandem with this growing awareness, a range of tools have been developed to detect evidence of  scientific misconduct. In a follow-up post we will look at some of these tools and test them on Irish science research.

Could it be that the Irish nightmare scenario is not so far away after all?

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Ivor Smackovsky permalink
    June 22, 2014 1:29 pm

    SFI would be much better off to read the actual research papers that our tax money pays for than to spend the scare money sending the attack dogs in to perform a research audit of the projects they fund.

    It begs the question that their own assessment of project reports is inadequate.

  2. Justanote permalink
    January 18, 2015 7:28 am

    Academeics name is Mart Bax, not Max Bart used above.

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