Respected medical journal worried at lack of international cooperation in investigating scientific fraud

In a rather worrying development this week, prestige medical publication the British Medical Journal (BMJ) has expressed concern about the validity of a paper it published in 1992 written by Dr Ram B Singh of Moradabad, India.

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

These two instances, regarding Singh and Chandra highlight the problems associated with investigating allegations of research fraud, and challenges the international scientific community to take action where necessary.

The BMJ published a paper by Dr Singh in 1992 on the protective effects of diet on the heart, but very quickly doubts were raised about the study and subsequent manuscripts submitted by the same author.

Richard Smith, then editor of the BMJ, in the absence of any answers from the author, tried to find an authority in India that would investigate and resolve the doubts over Singh's work.

No institution was prepared to take on the task.

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, does accept that it has taken far too long to bring the case of Dr Singh to light, and admits being partly to blame.

He says however that "the bigger shame lies with the scientific community that lacks the means to investigate these international scandals and has to leave it to an individual journal".

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

It is of concern that 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, and suggests suspicious studies should be marked as "dubious" on international databases such as Pubmed.

BMJ editors, Fiona Godlee and Jane Smith, agree that the BMJ should have done more, as it has taken over 10 years to try to resolve this issue.

They question though what journals can do when their attempts to get someone to investigate fails.

It is argued in some quarters, 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.

But ultimately journals should perhaps be more willing to share their concerns about published papers, as the BMJ has done, and though this may not resolve the suspicions, but it does alert the scientific community, and may prompt a legitimate organisation to do the necessary investigations.


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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