The validity of research is under fire (Photographer: United Soybean Board).
Science

23 Russell Group universities involved in “fake research” crisis

by Michael Maccallam

Fake news seems to be words that are uttered almost daily nowadays, whether it be about American politics or the scandal that has hit Facebook. A less spoken about topic though is the problem of fake research, concerning misconducts or in-formalities conducted in the medical field.

According to a BBC investigation, the scale of so-called ‘fake research’ has been vastly underestimated, with official data contradicting information collected by the BBC. Official figures have stated that 30 allegations of research misconduct have taken place between 2012 and 2015, but the BBC understands this figure to be far higher, even in the hundreds, following a Freedom of Information request that reveals huge misconducts in 23 universities alone.

Following the emergence of this scandal, the House of Commons Science and Technology committee have launched a formal inquiry to reassure the public that the integrity of research has not been impaired. Worries have been growing globally about the accuracy of research, particularly in countries where research is funded publicly, including the UK.

The chairman of the Commons committee, Stephen Metcalfe, stated that public trust in research was vital, going on to say that ‘what we want to do is to investigate how robust the mechanisms are for ensuring that research is ethical, it is accurate, it is, to a degree, reproducible.’

The BBC’s Freedom of Information request revealed that 300 allegations were reported at 23 research-intensive Russell Group universities between 2011 and 2016, a worrying figure that does not match with the official data given. More than 30 research papers had to be retracted because of misconduct in research, but despite this a spokesperson for the Russell Group went on to comment that ‘the UK has a global reputation for the quality of our scientific research. This is not least because our members are rigorous in their approach to research integrity.’

The implications of intentional research fraud could be disastrous, since public healthcare and medicine relies almost wholly on the integrity of thorough research that ensures no risks to the public when a new form of medicine, for example, is introduced. There has been a recent increase in calls for a UK regulatory body to oversee and supervise publicly funded research, as similar models have been used in the US and Denmark to great success, but Mr. Metcalfe has said that at the moment ‘there is no appetite for that in the wider community’.

In a world of increasing distrust towards news outlets and information displayed on social media, it’s troubling to see that research seems to be vulnerable to such inconsistencies too. With official data not in line with figures discovered by the BBC, it calls into question the integrity of this publicly funded field. The Commons inquiry will hopefully go on to identify coherent solutions to tackle this problem, but for now it seems that time will tell as to how successful they will be.

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