Upping integrity in scientific research

I wrote recently about a study that urged greater transparency in the work of patient advocacy groups, and especially the financial backing they receive for the work they undertake.

Such desires for greater integrity in research is not confined to the medical field, with a recent report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine urging the industry as a whole to up its game.

The report takes particular aim at issues such as opening up of data to aid the reproducing of research, greater clarity over authorship standards, enhanced protection for whistleblowers and higher incentives for researchers to publish negative as well as positive findings.

Supporting scientific integrity

“The research enterprise is not broken, but it faces significant challenges in creating the conditions needed to foster and sustain the highest standards of integrity,” the authors say. “To meet these challenges, all parties in the research enterprise need to take deliberate steps to strengthen the self-correcting mechanisms that are part of research and to better align the realities of research with its values and ideals.”

The concerns around reproducible research have been well documented, the report urges more to be done, especially in controllable areas such as data falsification and poor research practices.

The publishing process itself is also far from ideal, with many journals applying little to no editorial review or quality control, despite the high fees they charge for publication.  What’s more, the number of retractions of articles is also significantly higher, with many of these due to research misconduct.  Suffice to say, the authors caution that this may reflect better policing rather than a rise in poor practice.

“The research process goes beyond the actions of individual researchers,” the authors say. “Research institutions, journals, scientific societies, and other parts of the research enterprise all can act in ways that either support or undermine integrity in research.”

Systemic change

The report urges that change has to start at the top, with senior leaders at both research institutions and publishers striving to uphold the highest standards, even if those go beyond what is legally required.

What’s more, the industry should also do more to support those who whistleblow against bad practice, with their concerns addressed fairly and thoroughly.  This has been an especial point of failure for the industry in the past.

To help this process along, the report recommends the creation of a nonprofit, independent Research Integrity Advisory Board.  This organization would facilitate the exchange of information to enable the assessment of research integrity, and to help create the kind of cultures and environment to support it.  It will also oversee any complaints and allegations of misconduct.

What’s more, it could act in an advisory capacity to help the industry improve, and provide advocacy for the industry.

In addition, the report recommends that government agencies and private foundations fund research to quantify conditions in the research environment that may be linked to research misconduct and detrimental research practices, and to develop responses to these conditions.

Scientific research is hugely important in the modern world, and it’s crucial that we can maintain trust in the processes and results returned by it.  The report makes a valuable contribution to the debate around how the industry can, and must, improve to ensure that happens.

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