Fifty shades of fraud in Flanders

Following on from the publicity surrounding the Diedrik Stapel case, a new survey of medical researchers in Flanders confirms that fraud is fairly prevalent. This takes the form of making up data, manipulating data to make it match a hypothesis, plagiarism, double publishing (self-plagiarism), withholding undesirable research results, undeserved authorships or dividing research into as many separate science articles as possible (salami slicing). The article by Reinout Verbeke and Joeri Tijdink was produced with the support of the Pascal Decroos Fund for Investigative Journalism. One in twelve medical scientists admits to making up or ‘massaging’ data in order for it to match a hypothesis. And almost six in twelve see such fraudulent practices happening around them. They identify high publication pressure as one of the causes. Ivan Oransky of Retraction Watch points out that for the medical research fraternity the high rewards from pharmaceutical companies can also play a role.

In November and December 2012 Belgian  science journalist Reinout Verbeke (editor of Eos Magazine) spread an anonymous survey on fraud and pressure to publish among scientists of the Medical Science faculties of all Flemish universities. ……..  Psychiatrist and researcher Joeri Tijdink (VU University Medical Center Amsterdam) collaborated on the survey. He did another sounding in 2011 in the Netherlands, before the scandal surrounding Diederik Stapel had broken out – the social psychologist who had made up data and experiments. For years nobody had been on to him. Stapel and his unsuspecting doctoral students and co-authors even made top magazines with their fictitious studies. Luckily though, such large-scale fraud is rather rare. ……..

Fifty shades of fraud

Fifty shades of fraud

The results of the Flemish survey are striking. Of the 315 participating scientists, four (1.3%) admit to having made up data at least once in the last three years. If what they say is true, this probably concerns fraud that is still undiscovered. 23 respondents (7.3%) admit to having selectively removed data or results to make research match a hypothesis, so-called ‘data massaging’. Overall, about 8% of the Flemish medical scientists admits to recently having made up and/or massaged data. The figures are worse than the international average. A meta-analysis of 18 scientific studies on fraud by Daniele Fanelli showed that on average 2% of all scientists (from different fields of study) admitted to having done similar practices at least once (PloS ONE, 2009). Why are the results among Flemish respondents even worse? “That doesn’t surprise me, because we are talking about medical scientists”, says American journalist and fraud expert Ivan Oransky from RetractionWatch. com. “Cooperating with the pharmaceutical industry gains researchers financial rewards. That could pressurise scientists to cut corners.” André Van Steirteghem, a pioneer in reproductive medicine and secretary of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), thinks there is something else at play. “There’s is a significant lack of openness on fraud and malpractice at Flemish universities. This survey asked scientists about their perceptions for the very first time. They were able to vent their feelings. I think that explains the high figures in Flanders.” We can even suspect malpractices in Flanders to be more wide-spread still. “Surveys have their limits”, says Daniele Fanelli. “Many cheaters won’t admit to having done it, or will falsely assume they have a clean conscience.” …… 

Scientific American reports on this story here.

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