Medical research is pivotal in advancing the field of medicine. Not only does research lead to new drug molecules, it also generates precious knowledge that pushes the boundary of one’s understanding of the human body. The body of knowledge is built upon years of hard work and effort by predecessors, where the accuracy of these layers of knowledge is highly dependent on the accuracy of prior understanding.

However, what if some critical parts of these bodies of knowledge are wrong?

It seems unfathomable that the stringent mechanism of scientific research and publishing has failed to filter out inaccurate, sometimes even fraudulent, study results. However, the problem of fake research is more prevalent than was once perceived.

Growing concerns over research integrity

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) undertook an investigation that showed over 300 allegations of research frauds in almost all of the prestigious Russell Group universities from 2011 to 2016. Under the Freedom of Information rule, BBC uncovered that one out of three allegations were serious research frauds including plagiarism, data fabrication, piracy and misconduct. It was reported earlier this year that these allegations had led to more than 30 retractions.

The UK Russell Group Universities are a group of elite, research-intensive universities that include the famous University of Cambridge and University of Oxford. Back in 2011, scientists from a renowned pharmaceutical company looked into reproducing results from 67 published studies. The team had only successfully reproduced just under 25% of the studies.

The remaining projects showed inconsistency with their in-house data. The authors wrote, "in most cases, [studies] resulted in termination of the projects because the evidence that was generated for the therapeutic hypothesis was insufficient to justify further investments into these projects."

The root of the problem

An article published in 2013 highlighted a possible root to this scientific crisis: extreme careerism within the scientific community. The notorious culture of “publish or perish” has its tight grip on the community and there is no sign that its influence is weakening. Due to the intense competition, some scientists have lost the sense of integrity in their pursuit of personal fame and glory.

There is a tendency for researchers to cherry-pick their results and only present the most striking findings for publication. Rarely will top tier journals be interested in publishing negative results, and such publication bias has, to a certain degree, pushed some scientists over the boundary to fabricate data.

In addition, there are widespread statistical mistakes in the current research literature. For a research claim to be valid, its results must be supported by an appropriate study power. In addition, the study design must also be suitable to answer a particular research question, accompanied by the right statistical analysis. However, many scientific studies fell prey to dubious statistical analysis where the findings may not be the accurate representation of the actual situation.

Fraudulent scientific findings will undoubtedly lead to fruitless research that is both a waste of time and precious resources. Researchers must exercise extra caution when navigating through piles of published data to find accurate, reliable and replicable information. MIMS

Read more:
Online tool reveals up to 100% of research trials are never disclosed
Only 16% of medical news found to have independent expert commentary
China’s FDA says 80% of data from clinical trials in the country are ‘fabricated’

Prinz F, Schlange T, Asadullah K. Believe it or not: how much can we rely on published data on potential drug targets? Nat Rev Drug Discov. 2011 Aug 31;10(9):712–712.
Ioannidis JPA. Why Most Published Research Findings Are False. PLoS Med. 2005 Aug 30;2(8):e124.