Internal investigation of research misconduct often fails

May 30, 2017

Pär SegerdahlWhat characterizes a research scandal? In a short article in Hastings Center Report, Carl Elliott uses as an example the case of Paolo Macchiarini at the Swedish Karolinska Institutet.

Macchiarini’s deadly experiments with stem cell-covered artificial trachea, transplanted to patients who did not have life-threatening diseases, have unique features linked to the personality and charisma of the researcher. However, the scandal resembles other scandals on one point, Elliott says. Whistle-blowers who use internal channels at the home university to handle research misconduct often fail. Justice is not done until the press reveals the scandal. In this case, a Swedish documentary film, The Experiments, exposed the scandal.

If Elliott is right, I personally draw two conclusions. The first is that investigative journalism is important. It reveals misconduct that would otherwise not be exposed. My second conclusion is that we cannot be satisfied with this.

Angry customers who want to force the shop assistant to correct what they think went wrong can threaten: “If you don’t fix this, I’ll contact the local newspaper.” A responsible person who suspects research misconduct should not have to act in a way that others can interpret as partial exercise of power. It poisons the situation and increases the risk for the whistle-blower.

If internal channels often fail to handle research misconduct, as Elliott claims, a system of external management is required. Therefore, it is good that a Swedish public inquiry recently suggested that an independent agency should investigate suspected research misconduct.

Contacting the media should not have to be “the way” of effectively exposing research misconduct; it is a way out if the standard way fails. If the way out often is required, something is wrong with the way.

Pär Segerdahl

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Research ethics is not only protection ethics

June 6, 2016

Pär SegerdahlSystems for ethical review of research would never have been developed if it were not for the need to protect research participants from being exploited, exposed to excessive risks, or injured.

Considering how several research scandals strengthened this protection motive, it is easy to believe that protection is the sole aim of research ethics. This is not the case.

The starting point has always been that research is something worthwhile; something ethically important. Medical research provides knowledge that can lead to better diagnoses and more effective treatments. The humanities and social sciences can provide knowledge that supports more informed debates and more thoughtful political decisions.

Ethics review is about striking a balance between ethical values. Are the risks in proportion to the value of the research? Are the risks minimized, or can the research questions be examined more safely? Are research participants properly informed about the research purpose and the risks that participation might entail? Do they get the opportunity to freely decide whether to participate or not?

The “novelty” of research ethics is thus the balancing of ethical values. It’s not that ethical values are turned against research, for research itself is regarded as an ethical value. Also researchers are learning to balance values when they plan their research. The balancing is done not only in the review system, then, but pervades research itself more and more.

Doing the balancing is rarely easy. Moreover, as already mentioned, it is easy to overlook the starting point: that research is regarded as a value. This invites interpreting research ethics as pure protection ethics, which threatens to make ethics review one-sided.

For these reasons, well-written manuals are needed for members of ethical review boards, and for researchers. Manuals that not only inform about regulations and legislation, but also discuss the difficulties of balancing ethical values, and highlight how research ethics is “balance ethics” and not just protection ethics (except when protection law applies).

A new book, Balanced Ethics Review (Springer 2016), by Simon N. Whitney, is such a manual. It is written from within the American review system. But by openly discussing the difficulties of balancing ethical values, and by bringing to the fore how research ethics functions as “balance ethics,” the book has greater universality. – Perhaps precisely where the need for guidance is greatest.

Pär Segerdahl

This post in Swedish

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Macchiarini and the spirit of fraudulence

February 10, 2016

Pär SegerdahlI assume you heard of Paolo Macchiarini, the “star surgeon” who, with the willpower of a general, simply would win a great battle at the frontline of research – by creating new tracheae using the patients’ own stem cells. That the endeavor had costs in terms of a few soldiers’ or patients’ lives is sad, but some losses must be accepted if one is to win a major battle in the service of cutting-edge experimental research.

It is difficult to avoid such an interpretation of Macchiarini’s mindset, after seeing the Swedish TV-documentaries about him (“Experimenten”/”The Experiments”). You feel the presence of a dominating iron will to carry out a plan and to win. It feeds a warlike spirit in which collegial doubts must be suppressed because they corrupt the morale and slow down the march forward, toward the frontline.

Truth is, as we know, the first casualty of war. Losses must be described as successes, in order not to lose readiness for action in the final battle – which, of course, will be won, don’t for a moment doubt that! The condition of patients who after surgery barely can breathe must thus be described as if the surgery had given them a nearly normal respiratory function. Macchiarini’s misconduct follows the logic of war.

Imagine this rigid winner, waiting impatiently for patients for whom his unproven methods (with some good will) could be interpreted as a last chance to survive. Does he approach the patients as a doctor who wants to offer a last treatment option? Hardly, but the possibility of interpreting the situation in such a way takes him to the frontline: he gets the opportunity to operate on them.

Does he then relate to the patients as a researcher to his participants? Not that either. For the treatment is only improvised in the heat of battle and can hardly even be called experimental; and all failures will be covered up by more scientific fraudulence.

The fact that research ethics developed in the shadow of the Second World War is hardly a coincidence. Something that worries in the Macchiarini case is that research itself – with its competition for funding and more – obviously can be animated by a warlike and strategic spirit of winning, which corrupts individuals as well as institutions…

It goes without saying that suspected research misconduct should not be investigated by the universities themselves; that there is a need for an independent body that handles such matters.

Pär Segerdahl

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Online course in research ethics, spring 2016

January 27, 2016

Pär SegerdahlAnyone who manages research also needs to be able to reflect on research. Not only the researchers themselves, but also funding bodies, journal editors, members of research ethics committees, administrators, journalists, organizations, politicians, and others.

How do you act if you suspect research misconduct, and what is it? What are the ethical and legal regulations governing data management or research on humans and animals?

If you want to learn more about these issues, or perhaps about publication ethics and authorship rules, conflicts of interest, mentor/trainee responsibilities, biosecurity and more – then we can help you. We give an online course in research ethics for medicine and the life sciences.

The course runs for ten weeks, from April 4 to June 10, every week with its own theme (the last week is devoted to sharing what you learned with your home institution). The course includes video lectures and texts to read, but also interactive exercises and regular e-meetings with other students and with the teacher.

The course is given in English and is open to students from all over the world. If you want to know what some of the former students have to say about the course, you can read more here. And if you want to know who the course is aimed at, read more here.

Research ethical responsibility is vital and it is important that ethics education reaches out. The course fee is € 1.125 (including tax), and to students who cannot receive financial support from their home institution we offer a limited number of scholarships for which application deadline is February 15.

If you don’t need a scholarship you can apply for the course until course start.

Pär Segerdahl

This post in Swedish

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Articles may be retracted if ethics is neglected

September 30, 2015

Pär SegerdahlWhen a scientific article is retracted, it means that the article should never have been published and that data and conclusions from the study should not be used to underpin future research.

Articles are often retracted when it is found that the authors acted fraudulently. They may have been careless, or cheated, or have plagiarized someone else’s (or their own!) previous work. Retracted articles may still be available for reading, but with a notice that they are retracted, and with explanations of the reasons behind the decision.

A rarer and less known reason to retract scientific articles is that the study reported does not satisfy ethical requirements for the protection of research participants.

Human research participation should be voluntary and research on humans must first be approved by an ethical review board. Editors of medical journals are bound by the same requirements. They increasingly require that authors state that the research they want to publish has an ethics approval.

How common is it that published articles are retracted because ethical requirements were neglected? How do editors motivate their decision? And what happens afterwards – are the articles cited and used despite the retraction?

Ethical retractions are uninvestigated, but in an article in the journal Accountability in Research Yusuke Inoue (former guest researcher at CRB) and Kaori Muto, present a study of articles retracted for ethical reasons:

One difficulty they mention is that unethical research may still produce scientifically valid data, results and conclusions – although neglect of ethics is a strong warning sign that other demands may have been neglected. Editors must therefore strike a balance between the requirement to retrospectively protect research participants and the scientific value of the article and its results. And if one decides to retract the article for ethical reasons, the research study may have to be repeated with new participants, which is also ethically problematic.

Yusuke Inoue and Kaori Muto studied retracted medical papers in English in the period 1981-2011. They found that the first ethical retractions did not occur until 2000 (2 articles). The number was then relatively constant (14 articles 2001-2010), but increased dramatically in 2011 (83 articles) – most of them related to a research scandal around anesthesiology researcher Joachim Boldt.

Most retraction notices stated as reason for the decision, simply “lack of ethical review.” However, editors rarely explained the decision more closely, for example, if they judged that the whole study was fraudulent, or judged that the study was well done but lacked ethical review. It then becomes unclear how to assess the contents of the retracted article.

Inoue and Muto also found that the majority of articles that were retracted for ethical reasons continued to be quoted. In some cases, it could be established that citations were deliberately misleading (as when authors cite their own retracted articles without mentioning that they are retracted). In other cases, however, retracted articles were cited perfectly legitimately, to specify that data from them had been excluded.

Inoue and Muto’s conclusion is that editors need to explain more clearly the reason behind their ethical retractions, so that future researchers can better assess the content of the articles. Moreover, discussion is needed on how data from articles that were retracted for ethical reasons may be used.

While we’re discussing scientific misconduct, I take the opportunity to link to an American dissertation that shows that often when misconduct is revealed by the Office of Research Integrity, it does not lead to the retraction of articles:

The number of retracted articles thus gives a poor measure of the extent of scientific misconduct. There are many “fraudulent articles” in circulation!

Pär Segerdahl

We recommend readings - the Ethics Blog

Ethics research keeps ethical practices alive (new dissertation)

August 25, 2015

Pär SegerdahlI have in two posts complained about a tendency of ethical practices to begin to idle, as if they were ends in themselves.

A risk with the tendency is that bioethics is discredited and attacked as no more than an unhappy hindrance to novel research.

Like when Steven Pinker recently wrote that the primary moral goal for bioethics today should be:

But there is a way to go: self-scrutinizing ethics research.

Bioethics is often misunderstood as merely a fixed and finished framework of ethical rules, principles and review systems: as a cumbersome bureaucracy. I guess that is how Pinker understands it.

But first, the “framework” is the result of novel ethical thinking at a time when we had reason to rethink the position of science. Doing research is important, but it does not justify exploiting research participants. There are other values ​​than Science, which scientists should take seriously.

Secondly, this ethical thinking will never be finished. There are always new problems to subject to self-scrutinizing ethics research.

Not infrequently these problems are occasioned by the bioethical framework. Pregnant women and children are routinely excluded from research, on ethical grounds. But does not the protection of these groups as research participants mean that they are exposed to risks as patients? If new drugs are tested only on adult males, we don’t know what doses a pregnant woman or an infant should receive.

We need self-critical ethics research, to keep ethics alive and to avoid idling.

Therefore, I formulate a different imperative than the one Steven Pinker suggests. Bioethics main goal should be: Think anew, reflect critically, do ethics research!

We follow that imperative at CRB. An example is Tove Godskesen’s thesis,

which will be defended on Friday, August 28, at 09:15, in room A1:107a at BMC (Biomedical Centre, Husargatan 3, Uppsala, Sweden).

This thesis is not about standing in the way of cancer research, but about doing empirical-ethical research to examine how well the ethical practices work when cancer patients are recruited as participants in such forms of research.

Do the patients understand the information they receive about the research? Do they understand that the possibility that they will be cured through research participation is extremely low? Do they understand that cancer research involves certain risks? Do they understand what a randomized study is?

And why do they volunteer as research participants? Because they hope for a new miracle drug? Because they want to help future patients? As thanks for the help they received? Because they feel a duty towards relatives, or because of (perceived) expectations from the doctor?

All these questions are empirically studied in the thesis.

Godskesen’s dissertation also contains reflections on the concept of hope. Her empirical studies show that it is precisely the patients with the least chance to be cured – those who don’t have much time left, and who usually are asked to participate in Phase 1 clinical studies – who primarily are motivated by the hope of a cure, at the last moment.

How should we view this fact? Does it mean that these participants misunderstand the study they have chosen to participate in, and thus participate on false premises? Or is it a hope which gives meaning at the end of life, a hope which might be nourished even if you understand the study design?

These are questions we cannot “step out of the way” of. Tove Godskesen does not step out of their way. Come and listen on Friday (but observe that the examination will be conducted in Swedish)!

Pär Segerdahl

In dialogue with patients

Rare diseases need international research infrastructure

January 20, 2015

Pär SegerdahlThere are a few thousand diseases that you never heard the name of. They affect so few people and have no names in the common language.

These diseases are usually called rare diseases (or orphan diseases). They often (but not always) have genetic origin. They often affect children, are disabling and can even be life-threatening, and in many cases organ systems in the body degenerate.

Because the diseases are rare, they are difficult for doctors to diagnose. Even if one manages to make a diagnosis, treatments are often lacking. It’s hard to do research and develop treatments when the patient groups are small and scattered across the world.

In recent years one has begun to prioritize research on rare diseases, not least in the EU. A background to this trend is the development of biobank research. It starts to make it possible to do research on rare diseases, even though the patient groups are small and scattered across the world.

How? Since one can collect samples and data from such patient groups in biobanks that are linked with each other in international networks. Biobank networks thus give researchers access to large enough material to identify genetic and other origins of rare diseases. In this way, one can begin to develop diagnoses and treatments for small patient groups spread across the world.

In an article in the Journal of Biorepository Science for Applied Medicine,

twenty researchers, among them Mats G. Hansson, describe trends in research on rare diseases. They mention several international biobank networks developed to make such research possible, and describe the challenges that they have to deal with.

One challenge is to develop a common standard for how to, for example, document and code samples for rare diseases. Otherwise it is difficult to locate relevant samples in biobanks in different parts of the world and use them in research. One also needs to link the samples to electronic health records. Otherwise, the patterns behind the diseases will not be visible to the research.

Another challenge is that ethical review and governance operate at a national level, and often in different ways in different countries. In one case, mentioned in the article, where the researchers needed to use data from 130 patients from 30 different countries (and collaborate with 103 clinical centers), it took two years to get ethical approval of the project.

The project was not ethically controversial: 97% of the ethical review committees approved the project without requiring changes or further information. The time delay was due to problems of coordination between the governance systems in the different countries.

Another challenge mentioned in the article is to make researchers, doctors and patients aware of the existence of biobanks for research on rare diseases, and the importance of contributing to these biobank networks by collecting samples and updating databases.

The trend to link biobanks in networks has been clear for a while, even independently of the research on rare diseases. But this research really highlights a key feature in today’s biobanking: its infrastructural nature. Research on rare diseases, needing data from patients spread across the world, can therefore also likely accelerate the development of biobanks as infrastructures for future research.

Pär Segerdahl

Part of international collaborations - the Ethics Blog

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