Former BMJ editor: Health research should be considered fraudulent until proven otherwise
A former editor for the British Medical Journal
(BMJ) posited that health research should be considered fraudulent until proven otherwise
"Stephen Lock, my predecessor as editor, became worried about research fraud in the 1980s – but people thought his concerns eccentric," wrote Richard Smith in a July 2021 piece
for the BMJ
. "Is it time to assume that health research is fraudulent until proven otherwise?"
According to Smith, health research is based on trust. Health professionals and journal editors reading the results of a clinical trial assume that the trial happened and that the results were honestly reported.
Monash Health professor of obstetrics and gynecology Ben Mol, however, remarked that these medical practitioners could be wrong 20 percent of the time. While this did not surprise Smith, it made the erstwhile journal editor rethink medical research.
A recent webinar hosted by epidemiology professor Ian Roberts of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
(LSHTM) bolstered Smith's thoughts. Roberts' doubts toward honest reporting of clinical trials stemmed from a colleague, who asked if he was aware that the systematic review he presented was based on trials that never happened.
This led Roberts to investigate the trials, which he found never happened. In another set of trials Roberts investigated, he found that many of the trials included in the review could not be trusted. The LSHTM professor later wrote about the problem of the "many untrustworthy and zombie trials" in the BMJ
in a bid to make the Cochrane Collaboration and anybody conducting systematic reviews to take the problem of fraud very seriously. (Related: Whistleblower: Pfizer FORGED signatures of trial participants, falsified and fabricated trial data
"We have long known that peer review is ineffective at detecting fraud, especially if the reviewers start, as most have, by assuming that the research is honestly reported," Smith wrote.
He recalled one such case in the 1990s, when he was part of a panel investigating one of Britain's "most outrageous cases of fraud." The statistical reviewer of the study told the investigation panel that he found multiple problems with the study and only hoped that it was better done than reported.
"We asked if had ever considered that the study might be fraudulent, and he told us that he hadn't," Smith recalled.
Journals and their publishers incentivizing unverified data
Smith explained that journals and publishers' business models depend on publishing – preferably several studies as cheaply as possible. This leaves little incentive to check for fraud, and opens both journals and publishers to reputational damage and even possible legal risks.
Funders like universities and other research institutions have incentives to bankroll and publish studies and disincentives to make a fuss about fraudulent research. Even regulators lack the legal standing and the resources to respond to what is clearly extensive fraud. With research being increasingly international with participants from different institutions in many countries, there is no single body that will take on the task of investigating fraud claims.
The former BMJ
editor found an ally in Barbara K. Redman. She argued in her book "Research Misconduct Policy in Biomedicine: Beyond the Bad-Apple Approach" that research misconduct is a systems problem
. The system provides incentives to publish fraudulent research and does not have adequate regulatory processes.
Researchers progress by publishing research and peer review is not designed to detect fraud because the system is built on trust. This, in turn, makes it easy to publish fraudulent data.
Research authorities, however, insisted that fraud was rare in research. They added that when it does happen, it would not matter because science was self-correcting and that no patient had suffered because of scientific fraud.
Smith wrote: "All those reasons for not taking research fraud seriously have proved to be false and, 40 years on from Lock's concerns, we are realizing that the problem is huge, the system encourages fraud, and we have no adequate way to respond.
"It may be time to move from assuming that research has been honestly conducted and reported to assuming it to be untrustworthy until there is some evidence to the contrary."
Watch the video below to know more about one of the biggest research frauds during the pandemic
This video is from the High Hopes channel on Brighteon.com
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