Dishonesty Has Crept into Scientific Enquiry and Publishing. Here’s How It Can be Stemmed

Dishonesty Has Crept into Scientific Enquiry and Publishing. Here’s How It Can be Stemmed

Dr.Junaid Ahmad Malik

Research means “the systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions”. It is scientific in nature and is frequently referred to as open science. Open research can also include social sciences, the humanities, mathematics, engineering and medicine.
Open research is research conducted in the spirit of free and open-source software and built around a source code that is made public. The central theme of open research is to make clear accounts of the methodology freely available via the internet, along with any data or results extracted or derived from them. This permits massively distributed collaboration, and one in which anyone may participate at any level of the project. A vital element of open research is ‘knowledge mobilisation’. This is all about bringing as many relevant stakeholders to engage with published content as possible. When you consider that the main aim of a researcher is to make a difference through their work, the open template offers a way to maximise contact with multiple audiences. These interactions will inform the author’s work, creating a virtuous cycle towards real impact. Pressure on scientists to publish has led to a situation where any paper, however bad, can now be printed in a journal that claims to be peer-reviewed.
Peer review is the process that decides whether your work gets published in an academic journal. It doesn’t work very well any more, mainly as a result of the enormous number of papers that are being published. There simply aren’t enough competent people to do the job. The overwhelming effect of the huge (and unpaid) effort that is put into reviewing papers is to maintain a status hierarchy of journals. Any paper, however bad, can now get published in a journal that claims to be peer-reviewed. The most enlightened journals are already becoming less averse to humdrum papers. Some government funding agencies are working out how best to encourage replication. And growing numbers of scientists, especially young ones, understand statistics. But these trends need to go much further.
Journals should allocate space for “uninteresting” work, and grant-givers should set aside money to pay for it. Peer review should be tightened—or perhaps dispensed with altogether, in favour of post-publication evaluation in the form of appended comments. That system has worked well in recent years in physics and mathematics. Lastly, policymakers should ensure that institutions using public money also respect the rules. What lessons can we pass on to others who may find themselves in a similarly unfortunate situation? Gather a team of dedicated collaborators, because you’re going to need help and support. Be prepared for a prolonged battle. Collect evidence, but don’t contact the accused with questions if you are certain that they fabricated data, because they may then hide their tracks. Identify the appropriate authority where misconduct should be reported; this could be at your own or the accused’s institution. If no obvious channels exist, your own institution should be able to provide guidance. Be professional, stick to factual concerns, and ask trusted colleagues to critically assess the evidence and how you have presented your case. Put everything in writing, from correspondence with the university to contacts with any organization or government body that may be of assistance by, for example, providing documents.
What can be done by research institutions to help this out? Universities could be associated with a central organization that handles reports of misconduct. This organization would convene an independent investigative committee, because universities might be more interested in protecting their reputation than protecting good science. This would reduce the potential for a conflict of interest and ensure that credible claims of misconduct are handled professionally. Once an investigation is initiated, it must be performed by independent, critical people with the appropriate expertise. A person with training in investigative journalism, police work, and/or law would also benefit the investigative team. The central organization, as well as the whistle-blower’s home institution, should offer her/him support and protection from personal attacks during the process. For example, a whistle-blower’s identity could be kept anonymous. Whistle-blowers who were mistaken in their report should not be punished if they are deemed as acting in good faith. However, when they are correct in their claims, their institutions, as well as the institutions of the guilty scientists, should consider mechanisms to compensate the whistle-blowers for their service to the scientific community. This could include supporting contract extension and/or reducing teaching and administrative duties to make up for lost time. Ideally, whistle-blowing should not be necessary. The scientific community must enforce a culture of honesty. (Sometimes that takes courage)
There need to be replicates. There need to be as many kinds of replicates as you can think of, within feasibility. In the paper you should explain what replicates you did. We need to think about the research ecosystem in a different way – it’s not just about authors or libraries anymore. We must consider other stakeholders – funders, professionals and citizens. Open needs to be, not just accessible, but approachable – the challenge lies in drawing readers to compelling content and making engagement a natural process. Whether or not this episode represents a failure of peer review – and I don’t think it does – it has nothing to do with the argument against the principle of peer review.

—The author is a Lecturer of Zoology at Government Degree College, Bijbehara. He can be reached at:
malik.junaidahmad@gmail.com