18. September 2007 13:36

Experts deconstruct research misconduct from global and Institutional perspectives

“Honesty is a synonym for integrity while dishonesty is a component of misconduct.” This is how Howard Alper defines the two poles of research integrity regarding global and institutional perspectives on the issue during the First World Conference on Research Integrity in Lisbon, Portugal.

In his presentation for the conference Alper gave an overview on the roles institutions and policies can play in fostering and undermining research integrity. “Research integrity is the firm adherence to a code of high moral or artistic values in research, and possessing, and adhering to, high moral principles and professional standards in research, while research misconduct is the violation of the standard codes of scholarly conduct and ethical behaviour in research”, he said. Alper is a chemist decorated with numerous highly prestigious fellowships and prizes and a Visiting Executive at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of Canada and Distinguished University Professor at the University of Ottawa.

Alper cited the definition of research misconduct by the United States Office of Research Integrity (ORI)  - which defines research misconduct as “fabrication, falsification or plagiarism in prosing, performing or reviewing research, or in reporting research result. Alper elucidated the challenges for those researchers who are honest by nature but were pressured to falsify, fabricate data, or plagiarize because of national goals and peers pressure.”

Alper related his own experiences and observations on the researchers’ dilemma to the audience. While he was in Korea he was frequently asked about the Nobel Prize - “What do you need to do to get a Nobel Prize?” Also as a member of the advisory board of the reputable “Journal of the American Chemical Society” (JACS) he has learned that a large number of papers were submitted to JACS from China. But it turned out that many of these papers are actually of low quality, and are prone to make exaggerated claims while “massaging“ results to make the work significant enough for acceptance in JACS.

Alper reasoned this with many institutions in China require one publication per year from students to submit a Ph.D. thesis. Students are thus under pressure to contribute four to five papers, often of less than excellent quality. “This policy of what can sometimes be designated as “unnecessary publication” has led to the belief from the next generation of Chinese researchers that “the principle that quantity is central, often trumping quality. ”

Alper also called the misbehaviour found with medical or health science researchers and with climatologists. “Too many or the former are marketers making exaggerated claims to secure media attention, while the latter peddle biased, ill-informed views as hard facts thereby impacting communication of science to the public.”

“As science evolves and as pressures increase to secure results in often unrealistic timeframes, the quality of research being executed and reported does not necessarily improve with new techniques, equipment, and methodology.” Thus his expectations to the conference is aware of what measures, if any, can be taken to improve the quality of research, and of research reporting.

Introducing a number of potentially desirable elements of an outcome-oriented code, he identified two perspectives, value-based and compliance-based. The values-based perspective, encouragement, should already be taught in elementary and high schools, and a strong science culture should be developed. For the compliance-based perspective, deterrent, rules and structures have to be evolved, he added.


Value-based and compliance-based principles

Alper’s view was shared by Guitelle Baghdadi-Sabet from the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva, who is focused on good governance for medicines. She showed the numerous and very diverse possibilities for unethical practices throughout the medicines chain from the researches and clinical trials over registrations, manufacturing and pricing down to distribution and promotion. Unethical practices can contain falsifications of safety or efficacy data, fraud, bribery, cartels, theft, pressure and many other practices.

“Of the global pharmaceutical market of more than US$600 billion, 10 to 25 percent procurement spending is lost into corruption”, Baghdadi-Sabet said. “Some countries report that two thirds of medicines supplies are lost through corruption and fraud in hospitals, and bribery of high officials in regulatory authorities has led to unsafe Bribery of high officials in regulatory authorities has led to unsafe medicines circulating on the market resulting in deaths.”

As a consequence, WHO set itself the goal to curb corruption in pharmaceutical sector systems through the application of transparent and accountable administrative procedures and the promotion of ethical practices.“ The effort to address corruption needs the coordinated application of two basic strategies”, said Baghdadi-Sabet referring to the value-based and compliance-based principles. “Discipline-based approach comprises laws, policies and procedures against corruption and for pharmacy practice with adequate punitive consequence for violation, the values-based approach promotes institutional integrity through promotion of moral values and ethical principles to motivate ethical conduct of public servants.”

WHO developed a model process called “Good Governance in Medicines”, already running in several Asian countries and Malawi and Bolivia. “The first phase, assessment of transparency and accountability, looks into the vulnerability to corruption of the systems in place,” described Baghdadi-Sabet. During the second step a national Good Governance in Medicines (GGM) programme will be developed comprising for example an ethical framework, a code of conduct and a whistle-blowing mechanism. During the last step the national GGM programme will be implemented which includes the promotion of awareness, and technical and leadership training programmes.

In an effort to address the urgent need for fighting fraud, forgery and plagiarism in science world-wide, the very first World Conference on Research Integrity is taking place this week to facilitate an unprecedented global effort to foster responsible research in Lisbon, Portugal from 16 to 19 September 2007. With more than 300 concerned scientists, scientific managers and magazine editors from 52 countries are currently attending the event, initiated and organised by the European Science Foundation (ESF) and the US Office for Research Integrity (ORI). It marks a milestone for the science community as it will link all those concerned parties in a global effort to tackle the issue head on.

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Media contact:

Mr. Thomas LauE-Mail