29 December 2021
I have friends who campaign for various things, sometimes quite alone for many years.
One of my friends is Polish. He was part of the dissident movement when Solidarity was trying to end the Communist system. While the Government was forced to negotiate with Lech Walesa, the Secret Police were busy and the second tier of activists and sympathisers simply disappeared overnight, so he spent quite a lot of time moving around. He learned English and studied industrial hygiene, the safe use of chemicals in industry, so that he would have a qualification that was useful and recognised when he escaped to the West, which he eventually did.
But he retained an interest in Poland and noted that some of the researchers there simply translated English papers, changed them very marginally, passed off the plagiarism as their original work, and became professors based on their great advances. When the various academies were informed, they did not really want to know, as it disturbed their internal structures and was also something of an insult to national pride.
So he has spent years campaigning against scientific fraud, both there and here.
There are other problems that grossly distort research. No one really wants to publish negative findings; new discoveries are much more exciting than finding that stuff was wrong. Also private research is much more interested in funding work that will produce a marketable product, and research that shows a drug works or is better than another. The government has got into this mode also, wanting ‘partnerships with the private sector’ that will allow them to defray the research costs. This has arguably meant that the private sector tends to have a lot of say in what is studied, gets the government to pay for areas that it might not have bothered with, and can also grab lucrative patents early. In this competitive environment, researchers have to find funding, and there is not much money in repeating experiments to disprove them.
Some research needs thousands of subjects to see which investigations or drugs are the most useful so that treatment protocols can be developed. Naturally these require huge coordination between many hospitals, health authorities and clinicians. They require huge budgets. They offer big rewards if a certain investigation or treatment is shown to be beneficial and is included in the final recommendation of a huge trial. The lead authors will travel the world for years as the definitive experts in that field with all the prestige that that entails. Yet, as clinicians tied up with clinical work and often departments to administer, they cannot personally manage the logistics or the data and usually rely on ghost writers to put the drafts together. Who funds that you might ask? And what are the consequences if the funding company’s products do not work so well? Will the professor who said it did not work get funding next time?
There is even a whole scam industry of dodgy or even non-existent journals where you pay to be published or to be a supposed reviewer of papers.
So the pure idea that scientists are only interested in the truth and have no personal or financial interest was never true and has been under even more stress of late.
Just as self-regulation in banking, aged care, casinos, building, advertising and many other industries has been shown to be inadequate, now scientific publishing is coming under the public spotlight.
The world of academia is more poorly set up than most industries to act as policeman. Evidence is evaluated in good faith. Universities are expected to fund their courses from fees and donations so they are less in a position to take action that may be expensive and may damage their reputations.
Now, at last, the Australian Academy of Sciences has asked for a research integrity watchdog. This will help with deliberate individual fraud.
How much it can affect the other biasing factors in research remains to be seen. The political and economic factors are likely to remain in the ‘too hard basket’. It is still hard to know what the truth is. Gut feelings about plausibility are of course ‘unscientific’ and what you ‘believe’ at a point of time is supposed to relate to what the ‘facts’ are. And all this without social media even considered.
On the bright side, my Polish friend will see a significant step for his campaign, and if regulatory oversight replaces one lot of self-regulation there is hope that it will spread to other industries.