A blog from the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB)

Tag: fraudulence

Unethical research papers should be retracted

Articles that turn out to be based on fraudulent or flawed research are, of course, retracted by the journals that published them. The fact that there is a clearly stated policy for retracting fraudulent research is extremely important. Science as well as its societal applications must be able to trust that published findings are correct and not fabricated or distorted.

However, how should we handle articles that turn out to be based on unethical research? For example, research on the bodies of executed prisoners? Or research that exposes participants to unreasonable risks? Or research supported by unacceptable sources of funding?

In a new article, William Bülow, Tove E. Godskesen, Gert Helgesson and Stefan Eriksson examine whether academic journals have clearly formulated policies for retracting papers that are based on unethical research. The review shows that many journals lack such policies. This introduces arbitrariness and uncertainty into the system, the authors argue. Readers cannot trust that published research is ethical. They also do not know on what grounds articles are retracted or remain in the journal.

To motivate a clearly stated policy, the authors discuss four possible arguments for retracting unethical research papers. Two arguments are considered particularly conclusive. The first is that such a policy communicates that unethical research is unacceptable, which can deter researchers from acting unethically. The second argument is that journals that make it possible to complete unethical research by publishing it and that benefit from it become complicit in the unethical conduct.

Retraction of research papers is a serious matter and very compromising for researchers. Therefore, it is essential to clarify which forms and degrees of unethical conduct are sufficient to justify retraction. The authors cite as examples research based on serious violations of human rights, unfree research and research with unacceptable sources of funding.

The article concludes by recommending scientific journals to introduce a clearly stated policy for retracting unethical research: as clear as the policy for fraudulent research. Among other things, all retractions should be marked in the journal and the reasons behind the retractions should be specified in terms of both the kind and degree of unethical conduct.

For more details on the policy recommendation, read the article in the Journal of Medical Ethics.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Bülow, W., Godskesen, T. E., Helgesson, G., Eriksson, S. Why unethical papers should be retracted. Journal of Medical Ethics, Published Online First: 13 August 2020. doi: 10.1136/medethics-2020-106140

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Macchiarini and the spirit of fraudulence

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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