Regulations on scientific misconduct lessons from the US experience


In November 2000, a conference was held in Bethesda, MD, to present research into scientific integrity.1 The research presented was modest, but the importance of this conference was not in the quality of the research. It lay in the fact that the conference was being held at all. In 1988, one of the authors (DR) had proposed, at a meeting of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in Washington, DC, some modest experiments to determine the prevalence of major scientific misconduct.2 The reasoning behind this idea was that any response should be geared to the prevalence of the problem. The plan was to find out by confidential audit of the data behind published papers the prevalence of the grossest forms of fraud.

The suggestion met with a storm of abuse. The presenter was told that the experiment - which would be confidential and the results never presented except in aggregate, so no individual misdeeds would ever be revealed - would tear the very fabric of science and destroy the delicate web of trust that held scientists together.Yet in 1995, the US Government Commission on Research Integrity made the support of such research one of its key recommendations, and only 12 years after the initial suggestion, this conference took place a few miles from the NAS, co-sponsored by the two great governmental supporters of research, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), as well as by the prestigious Association of American Medical Colleges and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Numerous studies were presented.

The conference was not only oversubscribed, but it passed off without incident and has left science, in the US at least, not merely unscathed, but looking good to the public. Its sponsorship and its reception were powerful indications that, with the passage of time, the US scientific establishment has become less defensive in its attitudes. A month later, in December 2000, the US Government issued a set of revised, government-wide policies on research misconduct, policies that apply equally to all research and researchers, from anthropologists to mathematicians to biologists.3 Unless you were looking very closely, you would not have noticed this event - an indication of how routine the handling of allegations of research misconduct has already become on this side of the Atlantic.

Contrast this picture with what is happening in the UK. There it is clear that everything is almost exactly 15 years behind the US.4 As case after case of misconduct blows up in the media, institutional officials scurry around trying to reinvent the wheel in coming up with a response to scientific misconduct, or to cover up the problem.

A memorable meeting, held in Edinburgh in November 1999, at the instigation of medical journal editors, and attended by representatives of important professional societies and journal editors, drew up a consensus statement.5 To some, action seemed imminent.Yet a year later, three of the editors, in an editorial made up in equal parts of anger, despair, and disgust, pointed out that no official action has occurred and the situation has only become worse.6 Meanwhile, coverage in the media becomes steadily more intense and the public more disillusioned. Our experience in the US tells us that failure to move in a year is to be expected. What concerns us here is failure to move in 20 years at a time when the happenings in the US over the previous 25 years have scarcely been kept secret from the UK.

When the first cases arose in the US, it was often stated in the UK that this must be a peculiarly American disease, a consequence of the competitive nature of science in the US. However, for years it has been clear that this attitude, which never had evidence to support it, was nonsensical and that scientific misconduct knows no national boundaries. The cases occurring in the UK have not been trivial. Despite that, the paths being followed in the two countries seem to be diverging. In the US, relative calm means relative consensus and, most importantly, reflects effective handling of cases, yet the increasing storminess in the UK could, we believe, have been avoided if the UK had been more able or willing to listen to, and learn from, the massive, well-documented experience gained across the Atlantic.

What happened in the US in the intervening years to bring about the current state of affairs where a new definition can be introduced without controversy? What are the new US Governmental Regulations? How good are they? What lessons do they and this story have for the rest of the world, particularly the UK?

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