October 7, 2010

Opinion: How to prevent fraud - The Scientist - Magazine of the Life Sciences

Suresh Radhakrishnan
Thoughts on how to catch scientific misconduct early from a researcher recently convicted of the offense
Misconduct in science is increasing at an alarming rate, and is an issue that needs to be addressed. The constantly evolving technology, the arrival of online-only journals, and other significant scientific developments warrant a reconsideration of the existing procedures in place to prevent fraud and the development of novel verification techniques. Here, I propose four compelling approaches to nip this problem in the bud and limit the repercussions of scientific misconduct.

I: Funding for all ages
The number of PhDs in biology has increased exponentially over the past several years. Concurrently, the average age of principal investigators (PIs) when they obtain their first R01 research grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been rising, likely a result of the fact that all the PIs, regardless of stature, are competing for the same funding source. But established investigators have a clear advantage. Indeed, the NIH has identified this issue, and just last year instituted a policy to give Early Stage Investigators (those applicants within less than 10 years of experience) special consideration during grant review.
Despite this distinct advantage provided to junior PIs, no such effort has been made for mid-stage investigators, who are at a similar disadvantage to more senior researchers. Furthermore, even for junior PIs, I believe the NIH's effort is offset by the dramatic rise in applicants in this pool and the lack of a parallel increase in the total number of R01 grants. This increasingly competitive funding environment can result in undue pressure on less established PIs to publish in high impact journals, which can encourage falsification. A more effective way to counter the inherent unfairness in the funding process might be to divide funding into three groups according to career stage, such that PIs will be competing for funding against other scientists with similar experience levels. Such leveling of the competition could help reduce the pressure on younger PIs to falsify data.

II: Third party data verification
Experimental design, performance and analysis are getting more sophisticated, leading to an increasing pace of scientific discovery. However, those achievements are not matched by advancements in data-verification processes. It takes a long time to conclude a misconduct investigation, which minimizes the roles of agencies such as the Research Integrity Office at individual institutions and the Office of Research Integrity at the NIH. Furthermore, irrevocable damage has been already done before the dawn of a formal investigation.
Invoking an independent agency for data verification during the preliminary stages of a project could aid in generating stronger manuscripts, grant applications, and clinical trials while minimizing the occurrence of research misconduct. I propose that a third party facility, funded by groups such as the NIH, could provide such a service in an efficient and effective manner. Reagents could be submitted to the agency in a blinded fashion, and time spent on this process can be minimized by encouraging simplicity in experimental designs. For more complex experiments, such as those involving special animal models and biophysical studies, laboratories approved by their institutional Research Integrity Office can provide support, either by verifying the data themselves, or hosting a scientist from the central facility.
To ensure the integrity of funded research, funding agencies should insist upon the verification of preliminary data included in the grant to be completed before funding but after positive review. Journals can similarly choose to conditionally accept manuscripts prior to data verification, but withhold publication until the results have been validated.

III: Strong postdoctoral forums
Despite the rise in NIH applicants, the number of postdoctoral organizations has not increased significantly over the past decade. As a result, the supply-to-demand ratio of postdoctoral fellows is skewed against fellows, thereby making them dispensable for a laboratory. This can lead to self-inflicted pressure on the fellows for data delivery to help the lab obtain funding, as well as hesitancy to report any suspected unethical actions of their PIs.
To address these and other issues, National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) was founded in 2003. Despite their strong commitment to the welfare of the fellows, consistently addressing grassroot issues at an institutional level can be a major challenge. Moreover, awareness about NPA among new fellows arriving at an institution is very low. (I discovered NPA's existence just last year, despite having been a fellow for the past decade.) Invoking stronger institutional postdoc associations can directly increase the overall awareness of new fellows about NPA and provide additional support within the institution.
Socialization events hosted by institutional postdoc organizations, for example, can help relieve postdocs of prevailing undue stressors, and promote laboratory discussions, resulting in the prevention of data falsification either by the fellow (by increasing confidence and awareness of ethical science) or by the PI (by creating a whistleblower from an otherwise reluctant fellow). Furthermore, postdoc organizations could play a larger role in mediating cases of misconduct, granting fellows anonymity when they report such an occurrence, and relaying that information to the institutional Research Integrity Office for appropriate measures.

IV: Objective manuscript review
As the success of scientists depends largely on the number of manuscripts they publish, it can be extremely frustrating to have one's journal submissions rejected, particularly when the rejection does not appear to be scientifically justified -- an occurrence that is unfortunately not uncommon with the current peer review system. This, along with the enormous strain on researchers to publish the data rapidly, can potentially lead to compromises in the integrity of their research.
Recently, commendable novel approaches have been adopted by some journals, including revealing the names of the reviewers or blinding the names of the authors, to increase objectivity in scientific publishing (see The Scientist's recent feature for a review). These approaches minimize prejudices while encouraging constructive criticism, which shall serve to increase the quality of the work and reduce the occurrence of research misconduct.

Suresh Radhakrishnan worked at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., as a senior research associate until he was fired for misconduct in May 2010.

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