Medical journals struggling to unearth research fraud
[NEW DELHI] Two leading international medical journals have published their long-standing concerns over an Indian cardiologist's research findings, which they say points to a wider problem – the difficulty of investigating research fraud.
The UK-based British Medical Journal (BMJ) and The Lancet both say they suspect the veracity of research they published on the protective effects of diet on the heart. However, neither journal has yet withdrawn the paper they published.
A key author on both papers was Ram B. Singh, head of the Haldberg Hospital and Research Institute in Moradabad, India.
In their 30 July issues, the two journals said that the difficulties in resolving this case highlight the difficulties that scientific journals face when investigating suspected research fraud.
The team's findings — that a low-fat, fibre-rich diet protected people susceptible to heart disease — were published in the BMJ in 1992.
Subsequently, says the journal, Singh submitted a succession of papers to them on the role of diet in preventing heart disease. Some of the academics to whom the BMJ sent the papers for scientific review alerted the journal's editors to discrepancies in the data.
The BMJ says that in the absence of answers from Singh, Richard Smith, its editor at the time, tried to find an authority in India to investigate and resolve the doubts over Singh's work. No institution agreed to do the job.
After several years of fruitless attempts to fully verify the research, the BMJ decided to publish an account of its suspicions, and the failed attempts to resolve them.
A statistical analysis of one of Singh's papers by Stephen Evans of the Royal College of London, which concludes that the data "were either fabricated or falsified", is also published in the BMJ's 30 July issue.
The Singh case is just one in a series of events of potential scientific misconduct that have come to light recently.
In February 2003, for example, SciDev.Net reported on the case of Balwant Singh Rajput, then vice-chancellor of Kumaon University in northern India. Rajput resigned after being found guilty by an Indian government committee of copying from a paper published by a Stanford University scientist published six years earlier in the journal Physical Review. (see Indian academic resigns over plagiarism charge).
Both the BMJ and The Lancet say that these individual cases point to the larger, more troubling issue of the scientific community's lack of means to investigate research fraud.
Journals lack the capacity to investigate these cases in enough depth themselves, which is why they have taken so long to come to light, says Smith.
India has no formal mechanism for reporting scientific impropriety, points out N. Raghuram, secretary of the Society for Scientific Values, a non-governmental organisation in India that aims to promote integrity, objectivity and ethical values in science.
But even when the society tries to alert scientific organisations of suspected unethical practices by scientists, the funding agency or the government takes no action, he says.
The fact that no Indian agency helped the BMJ look into the Singh case is unacceptable, says Raghuram. "The government cannot simply look the other way. It should use Singh's case as a wake-up call and try to act."
Plagiarism is on the increase in India, says P. Balaram, director of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, in a recent editorial in Current Science.
The editorial says that in several manuscripts submitted to the journal, substantial portions of text have been taken verbatim, and uncredited, from previously published work.
Ultimately, says The Lancet, the research community, including medical editors, "must find better ways to raise signals of concern". What should not happen, it says, is to discourage collaborations between scientists from developing and developed countries.