Integrity in Research

Increasing concerns about reproducibility of research results, the number of retracted papers from high impact factor journals and overall trustworthiness of scientific research demand a response from the scientific community.

What do you think researchers and institutions should be doing to improve the public opinion of scientific research? How can scientists be ambassadors of good science and watchdogs for bad science?

3 Responses
Louise Rodino-Klapac, PhD
May 12, 2016

Regarding reproducibility and increased incidence of retracted papers in high impact journals, I feel the community is heading in the right direction. These journals are continually increasing demands for detailed experimental details and presentation of raw data. The time from submission to publication in a high impact journal such as Nature or Science will often take more than a year. The pressure for publication in these journals is felt most by the post-doctoral scientists or graduate students leading the laboratory work. It is imperative for faculty mentors to be critical of data and not pressure their mentees (subconsciously or not) to produce results they expect or want to see. In the purest sense, scientific results should be 100 percent free from bias, and therefore, both positive and negative results are important to report.

In the current era of social media and essentially zero boundaries between researchers and the public, it is the moral responsibility of scientists to represent their work honestly without embellishment. Buzz words such as “cure” and “reversal” in the titles of manuscripts presenting preclinical animal studies should be used with great caution. Countless patients and family members are desperate for treatments, and providing false hope is unethical.

Despite the current controversies, we are in the midst of a very exciting time for scientific discoveries. We are at the cusp of being able to meaningfully correct genetic disorders. As long as transparency of findings continues to be emphasized, the road to real “cures” is within reach. The public has reason to hope and should be able to trust scientists and their results.

About Writer

Lousie Rodino-Klapac, PhD, is a principal investigator in the Center for Gene Therapy, Neurology, Neuromuscular Disorders and Neurosciences in The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. She is also associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. Her translational research program focuses on the development of adeno-associated viral vectors to treat both Duchenne and Limb-Girdle muscular dystrophies. She was recently named one of Columbus Business First’s 40 Under 40 Class of 2017.

Parker Antin, PhD
May 12, 2016

Science advances through publication of novel results followed by efforts to reproduce them, making it a unique pursuit with inherent checks and balances. Failure to reproduce a study can happen for a variety of legitimate reasons and is only rarely associated with misconduct or fraud. Today, as we learn more about the complexity of living organisms, both successful and failed attempts to replicate a given study can provide valuable insights into biological processes.

Recent, well publicized allegations about the inability to reproduce published biomedical research have raised concerns both within the scientific community and among public stakeholders. It is vital for the scientific community to take public confidence in science seriously and to use this as an important opportunity to discuss how to make science better. Thankfully, scientific organizations are doing just that.

The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) recently hosted a series of dialogs about reproducibility, culminating in recommendations called Enhancing Research Reproducibility. The participants in FASEB’s meetings agreed that three general factors impede the ability to reproduce experimental results: lack of uniform definitions to describe the problem, insufficient reporting of key experimental details, and gaps in scientific training. FASEB’s discussions and resulting recommendations also focused on two key tools critical to basic research: mouse models and antibodies.

Through efforts like these, scientists are working to solve the problem and restore public trust. It will be important for scientists to ensure that they are adequately educating their trainees about scientific rigor and continue the conversation at their home institutions and departments. And, whenever possible, they should take the opportunity to discuss with the public how the scientific process works. Science is not a simple, linear road to the truth. The path to discovery is full of mistakes, false leads, and frustration. While it is impossible to avoid all of the pitfalls, it is imperative that we learn from them.

About Writer

Parker Antin, PhD, President, Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, Associate Dean for Research in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Professor of Cellular and Molecular Medicine at the University of Arizona

Bruce Stevenson, PhD
May 12, 2016

We live in a charged climate when it comes to the public’s view of science and the outcomes of scientific research. Climate change is a political lightening rod. The safety of routine vaccinations is questioned. And depending on your source, the earth ranges from 7,000 to 4.5 billion years old. In each case the scientific data lean unambiguously in one direction, yet the issues are still publicly debated. Why?

There are likely multiple answers. Scientists aren’t always the best communicators. More relevant to the questions, however, scientists aren’t always honest. Shocking to the 99.99 percent of scientists who take data veracity as a sacred tenet, there are scientists who cheat. Data are fabricated, ideas stolen, words plagiarized. Whether rationalized as a shortcut to publication, to get a grant in a hypercompetitive funding atmosphere, or to file a patent, it is wrong and it undermines public trust in science.

Efforts to enhance the reputation of science are taking several routes. Various watchdog groups (e.g., The Center for Scientific Integrity) are promoting awareness of the issues around transparency and integrity in science. Other monitoring entities, including scientific journals, have developed stricter guidelines to insure research is reproducible. The National Institutes of Health, the leading funder of biomedical research in the United States, has set an array of new standards to enhance research rigor and reproducibility. These efforts should be supported by all in the scientific community.

On a local front, researchers must take extra care in questioning their own results and those from their research trainees. Peer review should be ultra-objective, not an opportunity to slow a competitor’s science. Institutions need to provide robust, mandatory training programs in research integrity. And scientists need to step back and remember why we’re in this business: to generate reliable new knowledge. The truth, as close as can be objectively reckoned, must supersede what will get published or funded.

About Writer

Bruce R. Stevenson, PhD, Vice President of Research Operations in The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital