Fall of top US scientists points to ethics gap in research

Dr Jose Baselga, who authored hundreds of articles on cancer research, was found to have failed to disclose in research articles that he received millions of dollars from pharmaceutical and medical companies.
Dr Jose Baselga, who authored hundreds of articles on cancer research, was found to have failed to disclose in research articles that he received millions of dollars from pharmaceutical and medical companies.PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM MSKCC.ORG

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Three prominent United States scientists have been pushed to resign over the past 10 days after damning revelations about their methods, a sign of greater vigilance and decreasing tolerance for misconduct within the research community.

The most spectacular fall concerned Dr Jose Baselga, chief medical officer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre in New York. He authored hundreds of articles on cancer research.

Investigative journalism group ProPublica and The New York Times revealed on Sept 8 that Dr Baselga failed to disclose in dozens of research articles that he had received millions of dollars from pharmaceutical and medical companies.

Such declarations are generally required by scientific journals.

Links between a doctor leading a clinical trial and manufacturers of drugs or medical equipment used in the study can influence the methodology and ultimately the results.

But journals don't, themselves, verify the thoroughness of an author's declarations.

Caught up in the scandal, Dr Baselga resigned on Sept 13.

Pizza expert

Next came the case of Professor Brian Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Lab at the prestigious Cornell University.

He made his name thanks to studies that garnered plenty of media attention, including on pizza and the appetites of children.

His troubles began last year when scientific sleuths discovered anomalies and surprisingly positive results in dozens of his articles.

In February, BuzzFeed published messages in which Prof Wansink encouraged a researcher to extract from her data results more likely to go "viral". After a year-long inquiry, Cornell announced last Thursday (Sept 20) that Prof Wansink committed "academic misconduct in his research and scholarship", describing a litany of problems with his results and methods.

He is set to resign at the end of the academic year, but from now on will no longer teach there.

Prof Wansink denied all fraud, but 13 of his articles have already been withdrawn by journals.

In the final case, Dr Gilbert Welch, a professor of public health at Dartmouth College, resigned last week.

The university accused him of plagiarism in an article published in The New England Journal of Medicine, the most respected American medical journal.

Only human

"The good news is that we are finally starting to see a lot of these cases become public," said Mr Ivan Oransky, co-founder of the site Retraction Watch, a project of the Centre for Scientific Integrity that keeps tabs on retractions of research articles in thousands of journals.

Mr Oransky told AFP that what has emerged so far is only the tip of the iceberg.

The problem, he said, is that scientists, and supporters of science, have often been unwilling to raise such controversies "because they're afraid that talking about them will decrease trust in science and that it will aid and abet anti-science forces".

But silence only encourages bad behaviour, he argued. According to Mr Oransky, more transparency will, in fact, only help the public to better comprehend the scientific process.

"At the end of the day, we need to think about science as a human enterprise, we need to remember that it's done by humans," he said. "Let's remember that humans make mistakes, they cut corners, sometimes worse."

Attention has long focused on financial conflicts of interest, particularly because of the influence of the pharmaceutical industry.

But the Wansink case illustrates that other forms of conflict, including reputational, are equally important. Academic careers are largely built on how much one publishes and in which journals.

As a result, researchers compete to produce positive, new and clear results - but work that produces negative results or validates previous findings should also be rewarded, argued Dr Brian Nosek, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia who heads the pro-transparency Centre for Open Science.

"Most of the work when we're at the boundary of science is messy, has exceptions, has things that don't quite fit," he explained, while "the bad part of the incentives environment is that the reward system is all about the result."

While moves towards more transparency have gathered momentum over the past decade, in particular among publishers of research articles, there is still a long way to go, said Dr Nosek.

"Culture change is hard," he argued, adding: "Universities and medical centres are the slowest actors."