Scientific misconduct allegations: tell me, what would you do?

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By Julo (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Julo (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What is the appropriate way to investigate allegations of misconduct? At PLOS Biology we can attest anecdotally to an increase (which others have commented on) in the number and type of allegations all journals are receiving. Very occasionally issues arise during peer review or as a result of our pre-publication checks of accepted manuscripts. Other concerns come anonymously from readers of published papers, or from current or former colleagues of published authors. Some arise within the ‘comments’ section of a published article. In keeping with the general PLOS policy around comments on published papers we do not allow actual or apparent accusations of misconduct or unfounded assertions to remain within the comments section of a paper, but we nevertheless assiduously investigate any concerns that are raised there. Regardless of how a concern or accusation relating to misconduct is presented to the editorial team, each one is responded to and followed up assiduously. At any time, the PLOS journals that I am involved with (PLOS Biology, PLOS Genetics and PLOS Computational Biology) are between them actively investigating tens of accusations – and I want to be clear that in all the points I make in this post I am not referring to any particular current or past case.

In considering all cases we aim to follow both the letter and the spirit of the advice offered by the Committee on Publication Ethics, of which we are members. We first check that we understand the allegation and whether the complainant is happy to be identified to the authors, if appropriate. We then approach the authors in a non-accusatory way to ask for an explanation, and allow them a week or two to respond. We assess their response, and sometimes there is a simple remedy. For example, in a situation where the authors need to acknowledge in a comment on a published article that they did indeed use the same marker lane for two halves of a gel that ended up in different figures, no wrong has been done, and a little extra clarification will help future readers.

But sometimes the issue is much more complicated. The accusation may be much more serious, and/or the experiments done a long time ago. The person who did the study may have left the lab, for example, leaving the lab head grappling with old records and files to understand the situation in full. And once the situation is fully understood, what if it appears there has indeed been wrongdoing? It is very important to understand who did what and when, and to ensure a fair hearing for all parties. And once an issue is identified the process of investigating it lies with the authors’ institutions and their funders, and sometimes with regulatory oversight bodies, not with journals. Some investigations span several institutions and many years of work. In general, we expect investigations to take weeks or months, and very occasionally they take years. This is frustrating, and is not within our control.

What should happen while an investigation is ongoing? Our view in light of legal concerns and guidance from the Committee on Publication Ethics is that it is unreasonable to publicise an allegation before any wrongdoing is proven. Indeed, on occasion publishers and journals are threatened with legal action for simply mentioning the existence of an investigation, let alone predicting its outcome. This means that, while an investigation may be ongoing, we may not be able even to confirm its existence, and we cannot routinely issue some kind of ‘advance warning’ to readers that a particular paper may in the long term prove to be unsafe.

I hope it is evident to readers of this post that the staff of PLOS Biology take issues of misconduct and mistakes within the literature very seriously. We want what is published to be as ‘right’ as it can be, and we want to correct errors that occur. Everyone would agree that science benefits from discussion and debate on published papers; even papers that were accurate at the time of publication may subsequently be superseded. We need better mechanisms for highlighting errors that are identified and for correcting them, and this is an area in which we at PLOS are actively seeking technological solutions.

But a scientific paper is generally prepared by many, and any misconduct investigation and its outcome could impact all of their careers in profound ways, so we take equally seriously the rights of all parties to have a fair and unbiased hearing. That is why it is particularly troubling to me that we are seeing a proliferation of websites devoted to anonymous and/or public allegations of misconduct. I am also personally troubled when, as has happened recently, accusers appear to suggest that this journal’s staff are dishonest, lazy, incompetent or otherwise delinquent in our approach to handling these issues, simply because we will not publicly comment on proceedings that, quite rightly, happen in private. My personal request would be that those who consider Twitter or an anonymous blog post the best forum for accusations that may terminate someone’s scientific career instead rethink and try to be patient while investigations take place at an appropriate pace.

I would also like us to continue to have a (public) debate about some of the most difficult issues here, some of which have been touched on by helpful commenters on Twitter and elsewhere. How do we express concern about a paper without doing damage to innocent parties en route? It is not straightforward to highlight potential misconduct within a scientific publication without also implicating the authors or appearing to accuse them. How should we balance the wish of many to live their lives in public and with immediacy, via social media, with situations that necessarily deserve a time-consuming and confidential due process? And how do we create a blame-free mechanism of correction that allows authors to amend their papers as they learn more about their studies? We are delighted to see these issues coming to the fore in recent discussions and look forward to hearing more of your views on them. Please comment here, or tweet or e-mail us, and help guide us as we continue to try to ensure that the scientific literature is primarily home to truthful accounts of work that has been done as described and interpreted with care.

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Update – 13 November

Many thanks to everyone for your helpful contributions, both here and on Twitter. I take home these main points from the discussion so far:

  1. Where we are right now on the issue of scientific publications and misconduct requires some balance between the “rights” of authors and of readers. Some people would like us to be in a world of complete openness about all things, and maybe we’ll get there at some point but for now there are issues that remain confidential. PLOS Biology shares with readers a wish to be able to have an open discussion without making accusations. There may be times when it is hard to phrase a concern without being accusatory, but we should keep trying to achieve this goal.
  2. Journals could be doing more to ensure data integrity. At PLOS Biology we screen all images in accepted articles for obvious signs of manipulation and if we see any cause for concern we ask for original files. Some commenters have suggested we should require – and publish –  the raw image files for every composite figure, and this is an idea we’ll discuss internally and with our editorial board. Please do let us know if you have strong views on the desirability of this,  as we balance the burden on authors with the potential benefit to readers.
  3. PLOS Biology will continue to respond to every email and other message we receive about potential misconduct – although not always instantaneously – and will try harder to ameliorate the frustration complainants feel when we are not able to share with them the progress of an investigation. There will, inevitably, be occasions when it is not an option for us to say what is going on in an investigation, and we currently cannot flag manuscripts or warn readers, however frustrating this may be.
  4. Much as we love Twitter for its brevity, immediacy and ease of use, there will continue to be times when it is not the best medium for discussion of complex issues.
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