Suspected research fraud: difficulties of getting at the truth

This week, the BMJ expresses concern about the validity of a paper it published in 1992 written by Dr Ram B Singh of Moradabad, India.

We also highlight the case of another author, R K Chandra, who had a study retracted by the journal Nutrition earlier this year. As with Singh, serious doubts now hang over the rest of his work.

The stories of Singh and Chandra have been told to highlight the problems associated with investigating allegations of research fraud and to challenge the international scientific community to take action where necessary.

In 1992, the BMJ published a paper by Dr Singh on the protective effects of diet on the heart. But doubts were soon raised about this study and subsequent manuscripts submitted by the same author.

In the absence of answers from the author, Richard Smith, then editor of the BMJ, tried to find an authority in India that would investigate and resolve the doubts over Singh's work, but no institution would take on the task. A statistical analysis of one of Singh's papers, also published in this week's issue, concludes that data "were either fabricated or falsified."

After several years of fruitless correspondence, the BMJ decided it had no option but to publish an account of the suspicions and the failed attempts to have them resolved.

Richard Smith, who left the BMJ in 2004, accepts that it has taken far too long to bring the case of Dr Singh to light, and admits that "the failure is in part mine." However, he adds that "the bigger shame lies with the scientific community that lacks means to investigate these international scandals and has to leave it to an individual journal."

He resolutely stands by the decision to publish the saga, and believes that the scientific community has an obligation to the public to do better.

But once the validity of one study is called into question, who should investigate the rest of the author's work and, if necessary, mete out punishment, and correct the scientific record? Richard Smith believes that employers are best able to conduct this process but there needs to be an international body to take the lead. He also suggests that we should mark suspicious studies as "dubious" on international databases such as Pubmed.

Although the BMJ may have done more, it has still taken us over 10 years to try to resolve this issue, write BMJ editors, Fiona Godlee and Jane Smith. What more can journals do when their attempts to get someone to investigate fail?

Some argue that journals should keep "black lists" of suspected papers and authors. Others suggest that journals should ask authors to deposit a copy of their raw data in a secure archive so that these could be audited if questions arise.

Perhaps journals should be more ready to share their concerns about published papers, as the BMJ has done this week. This does not resolve the suspicions, but it alerts the scientific community, and it may in turn prompt a legitimate organisation to do the necessary investigations, they conclude.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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