Fraud in Flemish science

Almost half of Flemish medical researchers have witnessed a form of scientific fraud in their direct environment. One in twelve have been engaged themselves in data fraud or in “massaging data” in order to make the results fit the hypothesis. Many mention “publication pressure” as an important cause of this behaviour. This is the outcome of the first public survey among Flemish medical researchers about scientific fraud. The survey was conducted in November and December 2012 by the journal Eos . Joeri Tijdink, who had conducted a similar survey in the Netherlands among medical professors supervised the Flemish survey.

It is not clear to what extent the survey results are representative of the conduct of all medical researchers in Flanders. The survey was distributed through the deans of medical faculties in the form of an anonymous questionnaire. The response rate was fairly low (19 % of the 2,548 researchers responded and 315 (12 %) filled it in completely). Yet, the results indicate that fraud may be a much more serious problem than is usually acknowledged in the Flemish scientific system. Since the installation of Flemish university committees on scientific integrity, no more than 4 cases of scientific misconduct have been recognized (3 involved plagiarism; 1 researcher committed fraud). This is clearly lower than expected. The survey, however, consistently reports higher incidence of scientific misconduct than comparable international surveys do. For example, having witnessed misconduct is reported by 14% of researchers according to a meta-study by Daniele Fanelli, but in Flanders this is 47%. Internationally, 2% of researchers admit to have been involved themselves in data massage or fraud, whereas in Flanders this is 8%. The discrepancy can be explained in two ways. One is that the university committees are not yet effective in getting out the truth. The other is that this survey is biased towards researchers who have witnessed misconduct in some way. Given that both explanations seem plausible, the gap between the survey results and the formal record of misconduct in Flanders may best be explained by a combination of both mechanisms. After all, it is hard to understand why Flemish medical researchers would be more (or less)  prone to misconduct than medical researchers in, say, the Netherlands, the UK, or France.

According to Eos, publication pressure is one of the causes of misconduct. This still remains to be proven. However, both in the earlier survey by Tijdink and Smulders, and in this survey, a large number of researchers mention “publication pressure” as a driving factor. As has been argued in the Dutch debate about the fraud by psychologist Diederik Stapel, the mentioning of “publication pressure” as a cause may be motivated by a desire for legitimation. After all, all researchers are pressured to publish on a regular basis, while a small minority is involved in misconduct (as far as we know now). So the response may be part of a justification discourse, rather than a causal analysis. My own intuition is that the problem is not publication pressure, but reputation pressure, a subtle but important difference. Nevertheless, if a large minority (47% of the Flemish respondents for example) of researchers point to “publication pressure” as a cause of misconduct, we may have a serious problem in the scientific system, whether or not these researchers are right. A problem that can no longer be ignored.

Literature:

Fanelli D (2009) How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Survey Data. PLoS ONE 4(5): e5738. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005738

Joeri K. Tijdink, Anton C.M. Vergouwen, and Yvo M. Smulders, Ned Tijdschr Geneeskd. 2012;156:A5715

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