Is Misconduct in Research a Growing Problem?

Earlier this year, Dr. Marc Tessier-Lavigne announced that he would resign as president of Stanford University after significant flaws were found in his research by an independent review. The investigation came after a serious claim that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne covered up falsified data in one of his studies. And while this specific claim of misconduct in research was refuted, the review panel stated that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne’s research had “multiple problems” and “fell below customary standards of scientific rigor and process.”

This begs the question, if the leader of a prestigious academic institution is publishing research with “deficient scientific practices”, then what proportion of other studies are performed with a lack of rigor, or even worse, with misconduct? We asked the Figure 1 community for their thoughts on the problem of misconduct in research.

Here is what more than 450 healthcare professionals had to say.

How Bad is Misconduct in Research?

It seems unreasonable to assume that there are absolutely no research papers that have some kind of misconduct or even just a lack of rigor. But how prevalent do HCPs think research errors are? We asked the Figure 1 community what percentage of medical research do they think gets published with errors. The results were quite staggering. More than 60% of our respondents said that they thought between 11-50% of medical studies get published with some kind of error. Additionally, more than 25% of respondents said that more than half of papers are published with at least some faults. It is clear to see that, on average, HCPs think that about one-third of medical papers have some kind of fault.

Is Misconduct in Research Worrisome?

We asked the Figure 1 community if they were worried that misconduct in medical research was a growing problem. An 85% majority of respondents said yes, they are worried about misconduct in research growing, only 5% said no, and the remaining 10% were unsure. One respondent stated, “During the early couple years of COVID we saw the worst, most loosely unvetted data published as evidence-based research. Just highlights that when the pressure to publish goes up, the quality of research goes down.”

What Do HCPs Think?

It is clear that HCPs are wary of the accuracy of some medical research, but why do they think it is happening, and what can we do to fix it? One respondent outlined the thoughts of many when they said, “The pressure for results in the increasing speed of life shows its problems. In the hurry of being best and now, the rigor of every study is left behind in part also because of the power of the money.” Their concerns were echoed by others with one respondent stating, “ Too many people have a narrative and they will tailor the results to fit said narrative.” And another saying, “$$ is a big driver, but so is ego, prestige, and professional advancement..”

So, it seems that most HCPs believe that misconduct is caused by outside pressures. From manipulating data to provide results that the financial backers want, to just wanting to be the person who discovered the next big advancement, it seems factors other than science and knowledge are becoming the primary drivers of research. 

However, some of our respondents have ideas to improve scientific rigor. One respondent stated, “I think … more supervision [is needed] and for all research, something like random investigation, constantly to verify, that is more accurate.” Another said, “One of the biggest harms to rigor in research overall is the lack of publication of ‘negative’ results, forcing an incentive to make things ‘positive.’ We could level the research playing field in so many ways by shifting incentives to accurate rather than affirmative research. Publishing the negative results also prevents unnecessary waste in repeating studies that have already shown insignificance. Follow the money, and you’ll find someone who had a stake in striking it big.”

Published September 11, 2023

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