Journals tackle scientific fraud

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Tuesday, February 7, 2006

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After a rapid succession of cases of major scientific fraud, scientific journals are questioning the effectiveness of the current peer review system and asking what their role should be in policing fraud.

Less than a month after the confirmation that South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-Suk's cloning results were falsified, another case was discovered. A Norweigian researcher had made up patient histories of about 900 people for a study on cancer. Richard Horton, the editor of The Lancet, in which the research appeared, has responded to the scandal, "Peer review is a great system for detecting badly done research, but if you have an investigator determined to fabricate an entire study, it is not possible to pick it up."

While carefully examining the data for every publication would be prohibitively expensive, several techniques to screen for falsified data have been developed. For example, images can be checked for after-the-fact manipulation. The scandals have led to some readers looking more carefully at suspicious papers for evidence that the data are human-manufactured. Jan Hendrik Schön's fraud was partly revealed due to just such analysis by readers in 2002.

Some institutions are taking further steps to prevent fraud. In October, Emory University introduced a tip line where people can anonymously report suspicions of scientific misconduct. So far, five investigations have been launched based on reports to the tip line.

While many are working to deter future scandals, some scientists have pointed out that such fraud does not discredit all science. Dieter Imboden, the president of the Swiss National Science Foundation's Research Council, has said: "Bear in mind that every experiment will be repeated at some stage and it is one of the important principles of science that only things which can be verified independently by different groups are considered to be safe scientific facts."

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