University research needs fraud oversight, MD says

The editor of a leading medical journal says Canada needs an outside agency that can investigate university researchers when they commit fraud.

The editor of a leading medical journal says there should be outside agencies that can investigate university researchers when they commit fraud.

"Our mechanisms of tracking, monitoring, exposing and punishing are non-existent," said Paul Hébert, editor-in-chief of the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

When researchers fake results, the consequences can be dire both for science and for patients, says Hébert.

But unlike the U.S., Canada has no power to investigate an allegation of research fraud at universities.

Hébert says universities have an inherent conflict of interest when it comes to revealing scandals that will harm their reputations.

Martha Crago, the director of research at Dalhousie University, said Canadian researchers are subject to the pressures that come with vying for research dollars.

"With councils like the [Canadian Institutes of Health Research] awarding at something on the order of 17 or 18 per cent of everybody who applies for a grant, there's ferocious competition, and that can lead people to do things they wouldn't otherwise do," said Crago. But she said universities are the best place to deal with the problem.

"Most universities that I know will do everything they can to make sure the research that goes on in their university is done with integrity," she said.

New agency needed: CMAJ

However, Crago said most universities will not name the offending researcher because of Canadian privacy laws, and she said some researchers would simply go to another university and start working again.

Hébert said the lack of transparency is a problem.

"The lack of openness and trust and everything being done behind closed doors defeats the principle of trust," he said. "It's a reason to be fearful."

Hébert co-authored an editorial in the CMAJ's May 9 issue calling for a new agency — or existing one like the Panel on Research Ethics — to be given the power and mandate to investigate all allegations of research misconduct and to compel researchers to come forward before panels and defend the research that went into their work.

The authors said the new agency might not uncover any wrongdoing, but it would benefit the public and researchers by providing independent and transparent public reporting.

"Research should not be subject to real or imagined conflicts between scientific integrity and the reputation of academic institutions," they wrote.