By David Batty
Wednesday May 3, 2006
Fraudulent research regularly appears in the 30,000 scientific journals published worldwide, a former editor of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) said today.
Even when journals discover that published research is fabricated or falsified they rarely retract the findings, according to Richard Smith, who was also chief executive of the BMJ publishing group.
When journals decide not to publish studies because they suspect misconduct, they often fail to alert the researchers' employers or medical authorities, such as the Department of Health and the General Medical Council, he added.
Writing in the latest edition of the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Dr Smith called on editors to blow the whistle on bad research and to use their clout to pressure universities into taking action against dodgy researchers.
"In many ways editors are privileged 'whistleblowers' with the power to publish and expose institutions who fail to investigate alleged research misconduct," he said.
But the former BMJ editor said it was likely that research fraud was "equally common" in the 30,000 plus scientific journals across the globe but was "invariably covered up".
His call for action comes in the wake of several high profile cases of fraudulent research, including the Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk who fabricated stem cell research that it was claimed would open up new ways to treat diseases like Parkinson's.
Dr Smith criticised the failure of scientific institutions, including universities, to discipline dodgy researchers even when alerted to problems by journals.
"Few countries have measures in place to ensure research is carried out ethically," he said.
"Most cases are not publicised. They are simply not recognised, covered up altogether or the guilty researcher is urged to retrain, move to another institution or retire from research."
Dr Smith called for the UK Research Integrity Office, launched last month to develop a code of practice for researchers, to be given stronger powers to investigate allegation of fraudulent or unethical work.
The Committee on Publication Ethics, which advises scientific journals, estimates that there are about 50 cases of seriously fraudulent research in major institutions in Britain a year.