By Invitation

Tackling fraudulent research on multiple fronts

The $19 billion Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) Plan was launched in January. Another RIE plan - covering Research Integrity and Ethics - must be developed alongside it.

In January, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong launched the $19 billion Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) 2020 Plan. Much has been achieved in the past, but there are many more opportunities ahead to advance science, develop innovative technologies and nurture successful enterprises.

However, to do this right, we need to remind ourselves, especially the research community, to pay attention to the other RIE, namely, Research Integrity and Ethics, as they undergird Singapore's reputation as a world-class research hub.

Two years ago, a fraud scandal rocked the international research community. Ms Haruko Obokata, of top Japanese research organisation Riken, shot to research stardom when she claimed to have found a breathtakingly simple and faster way to reprogram adult cells into stem cells through a process known as stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (Stap). This would have significantly advanced the work of Nobel laureate Shinya Yamanaka and expedited the introduction and spread of regenerative medicine.

Sadly, it was not to be. Months later, Ms Obokata was found guilty of research misconduct. Her doctorate was subsequently revoked and, as a result of the scandal, her supervisor, a respected and eminent scientist, hanged himself.

Unfortunately, neither is this an isolated incident, nor are such cases confined to particular institutions or cultures.

Harvard, the Karolinska Institute, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Oxford and other top R&D institutions have seen similar cases.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

The same is also true for top industry laboratories. Mr Jan Hendrik Schon, a physicist at Bell Laboratories, had previously been hailed as one of the world's top innovators under 35 for his rapid semiconductor breakthroughs. However, other laboratories soon raised red flags about the inability to reproduce his findings and it soon emerged that his "discoveries" were fraudulent.

In fact, the level of research misconduct is more severe than one would expect. A meta-analysis of past research integrity surveys published in Plos One (a peer- reviewed open access scientific journal published by the Public Library of Science) found that one-third of scientists admitted to questionable research practices such as the selective reporting of positive results, and nearly three-quarters had observed colleagues doing so.

While only 2 per cent admitted to actual research misconduct - fabrication, falsification and plagiarism in proposing, performing and reporting research results , 14 per cent had witnessed it.

Such widespread fraudulent behaviour has generally been attributed to the pressure of "publish-or-perish" or the intense competition for research funding. Similarly, industry researchers are driven to produce "tangible" results in response to market pressures. The need to churn out the required output for advancement and funding may lead to research and ethical shortcuts.

WHY IT MATTERS TO ALL OF US

The consequences of research misconduct are grave and, at times, fatal. Within the research community, any breach of integrity erodes the trust underpinning the entire research enterprise.

Sir Isaac Newton once said: "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." The process of scientific discoveries advances by building on past discoveries. Any breach of integrity will therefore greatly hinder this process or render it unworkable.

Research misconduct also constitutes a significant waste of public resources, both on the falsified research itself and genuine research efforts that built on it unknowingly - resources that could otherwise have been better spent.

Just as importantly, many public policies are informed by research and there have been cases where fraudulent and unethical research has led to widespread and lasting negative consequences.

Many parents in the United States and Britain stopped immunising their children after a 1998 British paper claimed the measles-mumps- rubella vaccine caused autism.

A brief produced by the British House of Commons Library linked the rise of measles in the mid- 2000s to decreased vaccination rates following the study - uptake rates for the vaccine in Britain fell to a new low of 79.9 per cent in 2003 to 2004, while the measles rate in 2006 and 2007 was at the highest for almost a decade.

The paper was found to be "utterly false" and got retracted eventually. However, by then, the damaging association between vaccination and autism had been firmly planted in public memory. Even now, some autism activists continue to advocate against vaccinations for children.

HOW TOP R&D HUBS RESPONDED

The profound ramifications of research misconduct have led to renewed emphasis on research integrity and ethics over the past decade.

While many countries already have regulations on research ethics, top research hubs are now taking steps to align research integrity policies among their research performers.

Following the Obokata scandal, Japan's science and health ministries developed policies on preventing and dealing with scientific misconduct. Data management rules were also tightened across all institutes to ensure integrity.

The European Union has also acknowledged research integrity as "key to research excellence and socio-economic relevance". Last December, the EU Competitiveness Council issued its conclusions on research integrity, calling on member states to implement holistic policies.

Other countries have taken the approach of creating national offices to oversee research integrity. For example, the US Office of Research Integrity and the Office of the Inspector General have fulfilled this function since the 1990s, while the German Research Foundation has established an Ombudsman for Science Office for the same purpose.

Some countries have seen a bottom-up approach from the research institutions in implementing shared frameworks. The British universities rallied research funders, government departments and relevant stakeholders to develop a nationwide "Concordat to Support Research Integrity" in 2012.

Similarly, the Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (Citi) programme, which thousands of organisations subscribe to, was formed when various US research institutions joined forces to develop training materials for research integrity education.

Research is an international endeavour, so harmonising practices across the research hubs of the world is crucial.

Global organisations such as Unesco, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the International Council for Science have formulated guidelines for good research practice and misconduct investigations.

WHAT ABOUT SINGAPORE?

As top R&D hubs move towards promoting research integrity and developing shared practices, Singapore must do likewise.

A*Star's mission is to advance science and develop innovative technology to further economic growth and improve lives, and our modus operandi is open innovation.

We have extensive partnerships with industry, academia, hospitals and public agencies both locally and across the world. Under the RIE 2015 plan, we engaged in nearly 9,000 industry projects. Last year, two-thirds of our publications in top journals involved international collaborations . We must therefore uphold the highest standards of research integrity just as we expect our partners to do likewise.

A*Star had therefore developed a code on research integrity in 2010 for all its researchers. Early this year, we launched the A*Star Publication Policy to emphasise our commitment to publication integrity. This sets out responsible publication practices, procedures on research integrity, measures for enhancing overall publication quality and sanctions for non-compliance.

A*Star researchers must complete Citi courses, with re-certification required every three years, and run all publications through anti-plagiarism software. To ensure our partners are similarly aligned, specific clauses on research integrity have been introduced in our collaboration agreements.

Our universities have also taken great pains to develop policies and inculcate research integrity in young researchers through mentorship and training. Many also subscribe to Citi courses to keep students and researchers apprised of global practices. Some local research performers have also established institutional review boards to monitor and review related issues, with harsh consequences for wrongdoers.

Notwithstanding the good efforts within each individual organisation here, more can be done to harmonise the policies and practices across the landscape. To this end, A*STAR has initiated preliminary discussions with a few local organisations to align policies on research publications before engaging the wider community. 

Despite robust frameworks and practices, breaches do occur and Singapore has seen a few cases of research misconduct. For example, when a former immunology professor at a local university was accused of research misconduct through an anonymous tip-off in 2010, the university was prompt in conducting a thorough investigation. An independent high-level panel was quickly formed to investigate the allegations. Although only some of the 68 papers allegedly contained false data, all the papers were investigated. The process was transparent: A member of the panel who had co-authored two papers with the professor declared the conflict of interest upfront, and withdrew from the investigation. The panel eventually found the professor solely responsible for fabricating data in 21 papers. 

This case is a sobering reminder for us to never be complacent. Instead, we must continue to foster a culture of research integrity, while adopting a zero tolerance attitude towards breaches. History has shown that research misconduct happens in the best of institutions. How it is handled as and when it happens, is just as important as striving to have zero incidents.

For Singapore, research integrity has been fundamental to our rise as a world-class international research hub with many international partners. As a research community, we must continue to build on what we have set out in the Singapore Statement in 2010. Only then will we have a firm foundation to realise the goals of RIE 2020. 

• The writer is chairman of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research.


Correction note: We apologise that an earlier version of this article omitted the last paragraphs. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 30, 2016, with the headline 'Tackling fraudulent research on multiple fronts'. Print Edition | Subscribe