Fraud in medical research

This is not new, but Economist believes there is a “trend”. They have some reported stasts on it.

There is a worrying amount of fraud in medical research | The Economist

Millions of patients may, as a consequence, be receiving wrong treatments. One example concerns steroid injections given to women undergoing elective Caesarean sections to deliver their babies. These injections are intended to prevent breathing problems in newborns. There is a worry that they might cause damage to a baby’s brain, but the practice was supported by a review, published in 2018, by Cochrane, a charity for the promotion of evidence-based medicine. However, when Dr Mol and his colleagues looked at this review, they found it included three studies that they had noted as unreliable. A revised review, published in 2021, which excluded these three, found the benefits of the drugs for such cases to be uncertain.

If you notice the “confirmed fraud” and “suspected fraud” are two different things. English language is clear about “confirmed”, but “suspected” is always open to interpretation. Retractions may be done on “moral grounds” or “misclassified” as “fraud”. Authorship/affiliation/conflict of interest are always dicey issues. Conflicts, especially, are hard to prove and rely completely on the authors disclosures. Would you reject a paper based on the authors conflicts? Will you still be biased about what conclusions the authors have drawn? Why publish them in the first place, then?

Some possible explanation:

Publishing lots of studies has enabled some fraudsters to be perceived as leading experts in their fields, with the perks of professional prestige which go with that—at least until things unravel. As Dorothy Bishop, a retired experimental psychologist from Oxford University who volunteers her time identifying problematic studies observes, such fraudsters often run research groups or have collaborative networks with other research centres. When the fabrication is discovered, those colleagues are affected by the aftermath. “Quite often”, she says, “junior people get their careers completely derailed by this.”

Retractions by geography:

Paper mills exist for a reason:

Similarly depressing discoveries have been made in recent years for paper-mill articles. Though lots of these are so sloppy that any serious researcher would consider them a joke, and they are thus often published in obscure periodicals which would print anything for a fee, some look solid enough to be accepted by leading scientific journals. These are now discovering they have published hundreds of them. One analysis of 53,000 papers submitted to journals in a variety of disciplines, spanning six publishers, flagged between 2% and 46% of them as suspicious.

I am not sure if Economist has done due diligence. Many publishers offer the same services, but call them “translation services”. Simple. It is easy to find a medical writer, who will write and rewrite the paper for you as a side gig. Some underpaid post-docs have survived on these while waiting for their grant applications to come through. The problem will become exacerbated with the ChatGPT like services (for the right price, of course).

They even did a survey and found some honest admissions:

America is not exceptional in this. In a survey of academics in Britain, published in 2016, nearly one in five reported having fabricated data. And in a recent survey of researchers in the Netherlands, 10% of those in the life and medical sciences admitted they had falsified or fabricated data.

These surveys represent under-declaration, of course.

There is no fix for a broken system. I still haven’t found a workaround (or suggested workaround) that would address this issue reliably. The ones suggested by Economist are pedestrian and not worth your time.

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