Scientific fraud is more open than secret

Scientific fraud is more open than secret

By: Prof. Dr. Mohammad Tariqur Rahman

A colleague from Europe during his recent visit here to Malaysia shared his nervousness about a student who applied for a PhD position in his laboratory. Being in academia for more than 25 years, what he found about the student is too good to be true.

The reason for his nervousness was a long list of 76 peer-reviewed publications authored by the student who just completed a Master’s degree a few years ago.

I shared my take on that and said, we are suffering from a pandemic of “prolific authoritis”. It simply means we have too many prolific authors in the academic or scientific world.

For many academics and scientists, penning a paper once a month is a piece of cake. For others, a “piece” could be baked once a week or even in less than a week.

Those prolific authors must be super-efficient with their regular business of teaching, supervising, marking exam papers, writing research proposals, and last but not least reading new publications.
A common excuse that I hear in defending the hypothetical disease “prolific authoritis” is the super cool (borrowing a term from my colleague) ability of some authors to create networks and research collaboration. The more one has collaboration and networking the more they will have publications.

Nevertheless, the subjective concern about the actual intellectual contribution that is required in collaboration to become an author of a paper remains unsolved. Hence the accusations of unethical authorship practice often escape the dock in the courtroom.

Academic misconduct or scientific fraud – no matter how we name it – is not limited to unethical authorship behaviour. There are other forms of scientific fraud.

The severity of scientific fraud could be visualized with a number of headlines by the Retraction Watch website that include, but are not limited to: “There is a scientific fraud epidemic — and we are ignoring the cure”; “Why Research Fraud Is Getting Worse”; and “Buying – selling scientific articles: Consequences of mistakenly buying smuggled or counterfeit goods”.

As of now, there are about 45,000 papers that are listed as retracted in the database of Retraction Watch for one or another form of scientific fraud or misconduct. Surely the count does not reflect the actual numbers of frauds. In fact, many will go unnoticed before the respective authors will end their career with their names in the hall of fame with hundreds of papers they would author.

And many of our personal academia experiences would endorse the generalization of that statement.

Once I was evaluating a thesis of a postgraduate student. I found some data too good to be true in the thesis. I contacted other examiners and raised the concern. Then I was told, that we as examiners have no reason (or authority) to check the authenticity or validity of the data. All we have to do is to see if the student has the merit to award the degree based on what is produced in the thesis. I failed to convince my colleague that as an examiner we also have the responsibility to check all aspects of the thesis, not only how it is written; if the hypothesis, research questions, and objectives are met; or if the student has thoroughly discussed the results and compiled a reasonable and relevant literature review.

On a different occasion, one of my students requested to use some data to publish a paper. I managed to convince the student otherwise as the reproducibility and authenticity of the data could not be confirmed. Given the constraints of time and resources, it was practically impossible to repeat the experiment. Sadly, the student had to accept the fate without having the publication while many others would not bother in the same way that I forced my student to do.

On one hand, students have constraints of time and resources to finish the degree, on the other hand, they have the requirement to publish a certain number of papers to achieve the degree. In the end, they feel forced to publish using whatever data they have.

Academics feel obliged to pursue such publications not only because of their students but also for their own promotion, contract renewal, and grant applications. Here the reproducibility, authenticity, and quality of the data remain at best secondary or no priority at all.

Given the urgency of both students and academics, predatory journals as well as many so-called reputed journals grab the opportunity to publish papers by charging authors “article processing fees” in the name of open-access publications. Hence the praxis “publish or perish” has now become “pay and publish”.

Thus the vicious cycle of requirements for publishing papers for a degree, appointment, and promotion in turn the reputation of the institution they work for creates traps for many forms of scientific misconduct.

These are not secret anymore. Albeit the question remains – can we escape the traps?

The author is the Associate Dean (Continuing Education), Faculty of Dentistry, and Associate Member, UM LEAD, Universiti Malaya. He may be reached at [email protected]


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