Researchers tackle research deception

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A team of researchers at ETH Zurich in Switzerland has investigated how false research results can slip through the editing and peer-review processes.

In a paper soon to be published in the journal Scientometrics, Lutz Bornmann, Irina Nast and Professor Hans-Dieter Daniel of the research institute’s Professorship for Social Psychology and Research on Higher Education revealed that looking got falsification of information or fabrication of data is not generally a particular focus for reviewers.

The issue of research deception hit the headlines last year when the South Korean stem-cell researcher, Hwang Woo Suk, was found to have fabricated his research evidence, although his articles had been rigorously reviewed by and published in Science.

The ETH Zurich project evaluated 46 research studies published between 1967 and 2006 and examined editors’ and referees’ criteria for the assessment of manuscripts and their grounds for accepting or rejecting manuscripts. The project revealed that scientific papers were reviewed according to nine main criteria which reviewers felt were most important. ‘Relevance of contribution’ was the top criteria but ‘ethics’ was the last of the criteria. None of the 46 studies defined falsification of information or fabrication of data as a specific area on which to focus. 

Despite this omission, however, the ETH Zurich researchers found repeated instances of ‘quality of research’ as one of the underlying themes of each of the top three main criteria. The researchers conclude that the importance of ‘quality of research’ in the assessment of a manuscript does indeed play an important role in the review process.

‘Science is based on trust: scientists trust that published research results are real and not contrived. Independent of this is the scepticism that is an essential part of scientific work and that calls for work to be critically reviewed. Every scientist must critically examine not only his own work but that of his colleagues as well so that research with reliable results can continue and progress,’ commented Lutz Bornmann. ‘Certainly no lawyer in the matter of peer reviews would claim that all research results are honestly obtained. In general, though, articles that have been subjected to peer review by a respected journal can be trusted more than articles that have not been reviewed. Our study’s findings reinforced my opinion that the peer review is an important aspect in science of the quality control process.’