Massaging the Data: How Money, Competition and Ego Put the Scientific Process at Risk

March 8, 2016

Some of the most blatant examples of scientific fraud in recent years have come out of the biomedical field of stem cell research. Hwang Woo-suk, at one time known as “the pride of (South) Korea,” became infamous for fabricating a series of experiments published in the journal Science in 2004 and 2005 where he reported to have succeeded in cloning human embryonic stem cells. In 2014 the Japanese scientific superstar Haruko Obokata was condemned for plagiarising and falsifying data, after claiming she could transform regular cells into stem cells, studies which were published in the journal Nature. Within a year her career was finished and her mentor and supivisor,  Yoshiki Sasai, had committed suicide. The in-depth story of this tragedy appeared recently in the New Yorker.

Why are some scientist motivated to fabricate or manipulate data? It often starts with simple stress, a major life change, pressure at work to get research wrapped up in order to justify funding for the next stage. Hubris certainly plays into the dynamic. Competition for publication in high-profile journals is fierce and the increasing privatization of research institutes – and the expectation of novel, ground-breaking conclusions – may lead researchers to manipulate the data to produce positive results.  Reviews have shown that published studies have trended in the direction of a positive result bias over the past twenty years.

“To get into a good journal, you have to be publishing something novel, it helps if it’s counter-intuitive and it also has to be a positive finding. You put those things together and you create a dangerous problem for the field.”  says Chris Chambers, a psychologist at Cardiff University.

The problem belongs to everyone along the process; authors, editors and institutions. But how best to discourage fraud? How about starting with much greater transparency?

Mark Twain once said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

To remedy the problem, a growing number of scientists are advocating for the publication of a study’s complete data set in order that it be scrutinized through various statistical methods, not just those chosen by the authors. Additionally, many want all scientific studies to be published regardless of their outcome so that the trend toward only publishing positive outcomes is tempered. In the U.S. a law mandating clinical trial registration has led to a precipitous drop in positive outcomes.The study found that in a sample of 55 large trials testing heart-disease treatments, 57% of those published before 2000 reported positive effects from the treatments. But that figure plunged to just 8% in studies that were conducted after the law took effect in 2000. A similar law is being discussed now for Europe

OSE highlighted the work of one such group, Sense About Science, and its Alltrials Campaign last December which specifically targets the results of medical research. Currently only around half the trials financed and completed in Europe are actually published. The Alltrials tenets are summarized as:

  • No trial shall be conducted without first being registered, regardless of the funding agency
  • Every trial shall include a brief summary of its results
  • Every trial shall provide the methods used and the results obtained
  • Individual patient data should be accessible

Certainly these guidelines could pertain to every research study regardless of its subject area. By doing so, any lab would be indicating its willingness to participate in a more transparent process where fraud would presumably be more difficult to commit.

With public research funding trending toward fewer, larger studies, perhaps having a complete body of registered data already available would better inform these high stakes trials. In which case, might we see a greater willingness to continue funding the smaller, more esoteric studies that inform the starting points of our larger discoveries?

Any research presented in today’s world, due to rapid dissemination, forms the foundation upon which new questions and methods will be built . Medical treatments are only one area that can be devastated by a House of Cards accumulation of results based upon dubious data. It may be impossible to remove the motivation for profit behind a study’s initiation. But transparency could well reduce the potential that any harm come from false conclusions.