The highly prestigious British Medical Journal (BMJ) has again published damaging findings of scientific fraud. The BMJ markets itself with the tagline “Helping doctors make better decisions” but one has to question the quality of decisions based on faked science. The BMJ noted that the current findings of fraudulent behaviour are similar to findings in a 2001 survey. This decade of non-improvement may indicate a chronic and resistant problem that may remain until we experience a scientific revolution of sorts.

According to the BMJ:

One in seven UK based scientists or doctors has witnessed colleagues intentionally altering or fabricating data during their research or for the purposes of publication, found a survey of more than 2700 researchers conducted by the BMJ.

The survey, which was emailed to 9036 academics and clinicians who had submitted articles to the BMJ or acted as peer reviewers for the journal (response rate 31%), found that 13% of these researchers admitted knowledge of colleagues “inappropriately adjusting, excluding, altering, or fabricating data” for the purpose of publication.

Aniket Tavare, ‘Scientific misconduct is worryingly prevalent in the UK, shows BMJ survey’ BMJ 2012;344:e377

Unfortunately, it appears that the BMJ, while criticising the quality of the research done by others that it publishes, failed to be sufficiently diligent in the design, execution and analysis of its own survey. Professor Sheila Bird, a biostatistician from Cambridge, appears to have had a field day in providing a critique (http://www.bmj.com/content/344/bmj.e377?tab=responses). Perhaps the designers thought that a truly well crafted survey tool might frighten potential respondents, as if to suggest that this is indeed a matter that will be taken seriously. Who can tell just what was in their minds? In any case surveys can be notoriously weak if not performed well. Perhaps indeed, the BMJ feared that a better survey might reveal even more damaging findings.

In the Editorials section of the BMJ published 4 January 2012 Fiona Godlee, BMJ Editor in Chief and Elizabeth Wager, Chair Committee on Publication Ethics, UK  said “Research misconduct can harm patients, distort the evidence base, misdirect research effort, waste funds, and damage public trust in science.” It is reassuring to see they have some sense of the gravity of daily reality. They go on to argue for the establishment of some “formal mechanisms for overseeing research integrity” but one might be forgiven for sounding a little cynical by replying “good luck with that.” I would suggest that the problems they are attempting to solve are far more fundamental than any form of monitoring can deal with.

In the meantime I continue to recommend intelligent, critical consumption of anything and everything. Only the ignorant, the foolish and the lazy accept the pontifications of “science” uncritically. It is disturbing to see so much modern clinical practice that is highly dubious or obviously unsafe that becomes “normal practice” because individuals have become afraid to think for themselves, instead scurrying to the comfort of the crowd, the mantle of “approval” and the dictates of various authorities.

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