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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

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Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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October 9, 2009

I'll See Your Conflicts, and Raise You?

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Posted by Derek

There seems to be some finger-pointing going on about conflicts of interest in the scientific and medical literature. According to this piece in Nature Medicine, a recent conference in Vancouver on peer review featured statements such as this:

"We absolutely should not let up on our scrutiny of industry," says Karen Woolley, a co-author of one of the new studies and chief executive officer of the professional medical writing company ProScribe, based in Queensland, Australia. "But why are we always pointing our finger over there? There's an elephant in the room, and that's the nonfinancial conflicts of interest in academia."

I hope that ProScribe wasn't involved in that Australian journal scandal. But even though the head of a medical writing company clearly has a gigantic axe to grind here, the point isn't invalid. Academia has pressures of its own to publish, and lot of shaky stuff gets sent out under them.

Under the auspices of (the Council on Publishing Ethics), (consultant Liz) Wager dug through PubMed files to see how many papers had been retracted between 1988 and 2008. She found 529, and, in a close study of a randomly selected set of 312, she judged that only 28% were due to "honest error". Among the rest, some of the largest chunks were due to authors found publishing the same results more than once (18%), plagiarism (15%), fabrication (5%) and falsification (4%) of data. Taking into account an additional 1% in the 'other misconduct' category, the unethical reasons stacked up to 43%.

Many, perhaps most, of these papers seemed to have been unlikely to have been funded by industry. And there are, of course, plenty of rotten papers out there that never get retracted at all, in many cases because no one reads them or notices that they're a rehash of what someone else has already published. The Deja Vu people are starting to cut into that pile, though, and it's a big one.

There's a danger of all this turning into an exchange of tu quoque arguments between industry, academia, and the publishers. I think there's common ground to agree, though, that all sorts of pressures exist to publish work that shouldn't be published, and that everyone has a common interest in making sure that this doesn't happen. And industry still has a bigger responsibility, since (1) it has more money to cause trouble, if it wants to, and (2) the sorts of things it works on often have more immediate relevance to the outside world. If some obscure faculty member somewhere published reheated work in a series of low-end journals, he's only wasting the time of a limited number of people. A publication involving clinical trial data, though, can send ripples out a lot farther and faster.

Comments (15) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Academia (vs. Industry) | The Dark Side | The Scientific Literature


1. metaphysician on October 9, 2009 11:02 AM writes...

Stupid question: whats the difference between 'fabrication' and 'falsification'?

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2. Derek Lowe on October 9, 2009 11:56 AM writes...

I'd say that one of them would involve adding to or "cleaning up" data to make a real experiment look better, while the other would be making everything up from the very beginning. The problem is, I'm not sure which word to assign to which process!

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3. reply on October 9, 2009 12:08 PM writes...

As I understand it falsification implies that there was data to begin with - but some points may have been altered to look nicer. For instance "fixing" some points on a scatter plot to get a better correlation.
With fabrication there was no data to begin with. The same scatter plot mentioned before was completely made up.
To me is just a question of extremes in ethics. Both very bad one more unbelievable than the other.

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4. Palo on October 9, 2009 12:42 PM writes...

I agree with the post, Derek, particularly the last paragraph.
Among the differences between conflicts of interest in academia and industry I would add this: academia typically marginalizes the individuals involved in misconduct immediately. This is not usually the case in industry. Misconduct in industry is typically first denied, second argued against, third explained, and at the very end, when no alternative is possible, condemned. Most cases in academia initiate an immediate internal investigation, and more often than not, even without strong evidence, researchers are let hang out to dry by academic administrators. The difference are, I think
1) that for industry there is a lot of money involved in preserving the company's image, and a lot more money in making sure an already marketed drug involved in a controversial study, stays in the market. There's no financial interest in academia to defend any member potentially involved in misconduct; there is instead a strong interest in keeping the idea of the 'purity' of its academic role
2) the design and results of a study on a drug sponsored by industry are an integral part of its marketing and so the study is necessarily part of the company. Freedom in academia results in a more clear distance between a researcher and the institution. Most administrators do not know, nor do they care about what a researcher does in a particular study.

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5. Ward on October 9, 2009 1:22 PM writes...

While I agree with you generally, I'm not sure I agree with the essence of this criticism:

"And there are, of course, plenty of rotten papers out there that never get retracted at all, in many cases because no one reads them or notices that they're a rehash of what someone else has already published."

Not there aren't a ton of really lousy papers out there, but isn't independent validation of results key to the scientific process? And of course, in order for this validation to be useful, publication is needed. In this sense, wouldn't a (truly) independent "rehash" of drug (or other clinically relevant) studies be theoretically worth more than for basic research findings, excepting the time and money involved? It's not that replication is not valuable, it's just that the current journal system and academic monetization of publications can't support it.

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6. chemist on October 9, 2009 1:38 PM writes...

The problem with academics is that there is no real consequence for the factulty because of the tenure system. We have plenty of recent examples of retracted paapers from very well know institutions (ivy league). And yet the Professors involve suffer no consequence and continue to get grants based on the same type of work. A modification clause to the tenure track would fix that right up. Professors need to be help accountable for the research that goes on in the group (in this case the fake reearch).

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7. Hap on October 9, 2009 1:51 PM writes...

I think with academic people, the counterpressures on academic people not to cheat are only partial. When it's a grad student or postdoc, the hammer of responsibility is usually dropped rapidly and hard, but when it's a professor, though, that may not be so true. For example, I don't know if Professor Sames did anything, but the fact that the investigation by Columbia of the retractions from his group that should have (supposed is legally required to) take six months is still silent more than three years later is curious. Another example might be Cordova's group - his university hasn't been all too keen to remove him, and the money quote from one of his group members that everyone steals research is pretty telling. Universities may have reasons not to prosecute dishonesty to the fullest, particularly if it profits them. In addition, even if there is not university with a rooting interest, there are legal disincentives to accuse someone and hold them accountable for dishonesty unless there is absolute evidence of such ([cough]hexacyclinol[cough]). In general, there is never enough money in an argument to risk a lawsuit, while in industry, there may in fact be monetary reasons to attack dishonesty.

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8. bad wolf on October 9, 2009 3:10 PM writes...

Sames? You mean the guy with the big group at the big name school and everything else swept under the rug?

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9. Bruce Hamilton on October 9, 2009 3:24 PM writes...

Palo says " Among the differences between conflicts of interest in academia and industry I would add this: academia typically marginalizes the individuals involved in misconduct immediately. "

Not in my limited experience. In a case of multiple plagiarism by an individual in a reputable University, only discovered by a journal peer reviewer of a subsequently-submitted article, the whole matter was vigorously defended by the University, with no obvious punishment of the culprit.

Because the participants were international, the whole issue was abandoned after the submitted paper was withdrawn, mainly to avoid protracted expenses and maintain goodwill.

I suspect a reasonable volume of undesirable behaviour is caught before publication, but once published it's difficult to obtain a retraction, regardless of the authors' affiliations. Brazen denial is an effective strategy.

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10. Petros on October 9, 2009 4:22 PM writes...

A writing company using the name ProScribe seems to have chosen its name very inappropriately!

"pro⋅scribe  /proʊˈskraɪb/ Show Spelled Pronunciation [proh-skrahyb] Show IPA
Use proscribe in a Sentence
See web results for proscribe
See images of proscribe
–verb (used with object), -scribed, -scrib⋅ing. 1. to denounce or condemn (a thing) as dangerous or harmful; prohibit.
2. to put outside the protection of the law; outlaw.
3. to banish or exile.
4. to announce the name of (a person) as condemned to death and subject to confiscation of property. "


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11. Anonymous on October 9, 2009 4:45 PM writes...

I went to grad school at a large, well-known department. I didn't know of any incidents of plagiarism or data fabrication during my time there, but in general, anything that might be embarrassing to a professor or the department always got hushed up. If they ever have a research misconduct case on their hands, I doubt it would be handled any differently. I think Sames/Sezen is the tip of the iceberg; most cases like this are probably kept quiet.

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12. Anonymous on October 10, 2009 9:21 AM writes...

I found a case of plagarism in a very high profile chemistry journal where a professor had essentially cut-and-pasted a protocol and technique from someone else's older (by ~4 years) industrial patent application (which was also discussed widely at conferences in this subfield), and added a few new examples, without acknowledging the original authors or the patent application.

I reported it to the editors and the university in question, and approximately zero was done. No corrections, no adding of additional references, no withdrawals, zippo.

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13. Andrew on October 12, 2009 7:57 AM writes...

@Anon #12

If this is true, why do you need to be vague? Just cite the paper here and the patent you believe it's plagiarised from, and let people judge for themselves. Surely there's no harm in making the details public?

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14. Hap on October 12, 2009 12:06 PM writes...

I would have figured this might have explained it. Or Dr. La Clair's threats against Kyle Finschigmate (though it's not absolutely clear what happened, it's pretty clear that something is not right).

Unless you have absolute proof of someone's guilt (that will pass muster in a court of law), and have someone/something to back you legally, it's kind of risky to publicize someone else's dishonesty. The ability to use legal threats to prevent revelations of misdeeds disables part of the ability scientific processes have to validate or invalidate research.

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15. Denton on March 31, 2011 10:18 AM writes...

I have to agree with the many of the above in that it is more common and less punished in academica. In industry, the legal department gets really hostile if you fake stuff. In academia, especially with tenure, no one really seems to care. I've seen people get tenure with very odd work...

And like 12, if I knew of any cases, I'd be really careful of where and how I told anyone. I've seen tenured people basically evicted from their department because less. Fraud may be overlooked but rocking the boat, never.

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