DEBATE 

 

2016-10-03
Christian Berggren and  Solmaz Filiz Karabag, Linköping University

Also journals have to take responsibility for scientific misconduct

Svenska

Academic journals play a key role in exposing misconduct. A new study by Christian Berggren and Solmaz Filiz Karabag, Linköping University, shows how journals are increasingly retracting manipulated and misleading papers. Alas, they argue, The Lancet abdicated from this important role in the Macchiarini affair, and has still not retracted any of his articles.

Christian Berggren and Solmaz Filiz Karabag

The scandals at Karolinska institutet (KI), and the fact that a documentary film maker at SVT was needed for anything to happen, have started a broad discussion regarding remedies against scientific misconduct. Insightful commentators, for example Per Aspenberg (160608),  argue that new administrative rules and controls are not enough; what is needed are efforts to create an academic culture of reading, reflections and critical scrutiny. The responsibility of the scientific journals is another aspect, which has not been discussed so far, despite its importance.

Vice chancellors and research directors do not assess and check the quality of researchers’ scientific contributions. This task is outsourced to the peer review system of the international scientific journals. By engaging anonymous experts for systematic scrutiny of submitted papers these journals are expected to guarantee that published results are reliable and based on sound scientific praxis.  That is why publishing in these journals is such a central part of the academic career system – for promotion, for external research grants, for opportunities to apply for attractive positions.  Macchiarini is no exception – his articles in the renowned medical journal The Lancet made him internationally well-known before coming to KI.

However, similar to sports competition great rewards increase the risks of misbehavior and misconduct also in academia. Therefore journals have procedures to retract, i. e publicly renounce, published papers. A study published in PLOS 2012 identified as many as 4449 publically retracted science papers from 1928 to 2010: very few before 1980, somewhat more 1980-2000, and a tenfold increase 2000-2010 [1]. However, in the Macchiarini-case The Lancet has retracted nothing. In a celebrated paper in the Lancet in 2011, Macchiarini and twenty co-authors described the “break-through” transplantation of an artificial stem-cell-seeded trachea, concluding that ”The successful overall clinical outcome of this first-in-man bioengineered artificial tracheobronchial transplantation provides ongoing proof of the viability of this approach” [2]. Macchiarini also published papers in The Lancet in 2012 and 2014, and David Holmes complemented with an idolizing interview with a surgeon “crossing frontiers”.

In 2014, doctors at Karolinska Hospital responsible for post-surgery care, wrote a highly critical report of the many problems that had surfaced after this “successful” transplantation, and in May 2015, the external reviewer Bengt Gerdin published a comprehensive critique of methods and ethics in the Macchiarini approach. The Lancet has published Notes of concern from the Swedish Academy of Science, but has taken no initiative to retract any Macchiarini-papers. It is doubtful if this passivity is in line with the COPE-guidelines which the journal is officially committed to. The passivity is more remarkable against the backdrop of the increased activity – more retractions, more explicit editorials, more publications of ethical guidelines – in academic areas which traditionally have enjoyed less prestige than the medical sciences. In a comprehensive study of misconduct and editorial practices in economics, management and business recently published in the OA-journal PLOS, we identified all retracted papers in these disciplines from 2005 to 2015 (see “Misconduct, Marginality, and Editorial Practices in Management, Business, and Economics” [3]).

Before 2005 no retraction could be identified, but thereafter the numbers increased year by year, and 2015 posted an “all time high” with 63 retracted papers! Leading journals such as Research Policy have not been passively waiting for institutions or authors to come forward with Error notes, or suggestions of retractions. They have invested considerable resources to investigate suspicious cases by themselves, for example scrutinizing authors who have published papers with incompatible findings from the same data in different journals.

Since the negative incentives for doing anything are so strong, the observed increase in retractions is probably only the tip of the iceberg.

A survey to 60 journals with publically retracted papers revealed that such retraction processes are highly time-consuming and may involve serious legal implications when authors engage lawyers to fight their case and threaten to sue the journal. Since the negative incentives for doing anything are so strong, the observed increase in retractions is probably only the tip of the iceberg. At the same time our study demonstrates a strong interest in ethical issues among MBE-editors. In a second survey, to all 1000 MBE-journals, almost half of the 298 respondents reported they had implemented screening software to catch plagiarism in submitted papers, and also were actively working to avoid salami-style papers, where authors slice and dice their results in the smallest possible pieces in order to maximize their publication figures. Several editors asked for advice on how to encourage creative and reliable contributions. The PLOS-paper presents a range of such suggestions.

The Macchiarini scandal at KI has resulted in several external enquiries, including an institutional review by the previous High commander of the Swedish Police. But they miss the crucial aspect that within academia, the scientific journals are the key actors trusted to uphold the organized skepticism, which the famous science sociologist Robert Merton found to be so important for the vitality of the academic enterprise. If journals and publishers let us down here the system is in serious problems. We cannot always count on external, non-academic film makers to reveal dishonesty, neglect of proven practices and ethical transgressions.

Christian Berggren
Professor, Department of Management and Engineering, Linköping University

Filiz Karabag
Associate Professor, Department of Management and Engineering, Linköping University

References

[1] Grieneisen M. L. and Zhang M.A. Comprehensive survey of retracted articles from the scholarly literature, PLOS ONE 2012; 7:1-22. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0044118

[2] Macchiarini, P. et al. 2011. Tracheobronchial transplantation with a stem-cell-seeded bioartificial nanocomposite: a proof-of-concept study. The Lancet, 378(9808):1997-2004.

[3] Karabag S.F. and Berggren C. Misconduct, Marginality and Editorial Practices in Management, Business and Economics Journals, PLOS ONE, http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0159492.