MOST of us probably assume we can trust the research we read in peer-reviewed journals, assuming it has been honestly reported, or at least that the study has actually been conducted.
But are we wrong? Former BMJ editor Dr Richard Smith suggested in a 2021 blog post research fraud was now so widespread it might be safer to assume a published paper was fraudulent until proven otherwise.
“The problem is huge, the system encourages fraud, and we have no adequate way to respond,” he wrote. “It may be time to move from assuming that research has been honestly conducted and reported to assuming it to be untrustworthy until there is some evidence to the contrary.”
Production of fraudulent research papers has become a serious industry in recent years, with so-called “paper mills” relying on the proven business model of producing a desirable product at scale and at an affordable price.
Researchers desperate to meet publication targets can purchase superficially plausible articles from the mills. It’s easy to get them published in less scrupulous journals, those that charge their contributors a fee and have little or no peer review.
Sometimes they get through screening processes to appear in even the most reputable journals, where peer reviewers may not be on the alert for outright fraud.
Sydney cancer researcher Jennifer Byrne has been investigating the paper mills for several years after coming across several suspicious studies purporting to investigate a gene she had originally identified.
Her recent study of published research on human genes identified 712 articles with at least one wrongly identified nucleotide sequence, a possible indicator the article had been produced by a paper mill.
The identified articles had been cited in other research more than 17 000 times, including in human clinical trials, Professor Byrne and colleagues wrote.
“Given our estimate that approximately one-quarter of problematic articles may misinform the future development of human therapies, urgent measures are required to address unreliable gene research articles,” they concluded.
Multiple potentially fraudulent articles claiming the same gene played a causal role in various types of cancer could lead to research being misdirected, possibly at the expense of more fruitful avenues, they suggested.
While reputable journals were becoming more vigilant about potential submissions from paper mills, they also needed to address the large volume of fraudulent research that was already in the published literature.
Of the 712 articles identified by Professor Byrne and colleagues, 97% were still available without correction.
The COVID-19 pandemic had highlighted the importance of maintaining the integrity of published research, Professor Byrne told me last week.
“When disaster strikes, we turn to the scientists,” she says. “Scientists had been quietly working away for years on the mRNA technology that allowed us to develop vaccines so quickly.”
If published research in such an area had been corrupted by fraud, if fake papers had infiltrated meta-analyses, the vaccine effort could have been seriously undermined.
“The real thing takes time,” Professor Byrne says. “Laboratory research is slow, difficult and expensive.
“Fraud is quick, easy and cheap. And that is really dangerous.”
Jane McCredie is a health and science writer based in Sydney.
The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.