The ethics of scientific publication

From New Scientist,SasaiStem cell scientist found dead in apparent suicide

14:24 05 August 2014 by Helen Thomson
For similar stories, visit the Stem Cells Topic Guide
A senior Japanese stem cell scientist has died in an apparent suicide.

Yoshiki Sasai, who recently co-authored two controversial papers on stem cells, was found dead at his laboratory, the Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan.

Riken’s deputy director, Sasai was renowned for his ability to coax stem cells into becoming other types of cells. This year, however, his career has been under the spotlight. Sasai was a co-author on two research papers that claimed to produce embryonic stem cells called STAP from adult cells using acidMovie Camera. The papers were retracted from the journal Nature in July due to multiple errors.

Sasai, 52, was cleared of any direct involvement by a Riken investigation, but criticised for his failure to correctly edit the papers and for his supervision of lead author, Haruko Obokata, who was found guilty of misconduct in April.

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Helping a journal improve publication qualityThe recent “expose” of scientific fraud raises many questions about the academic publications in scientific journals. How stringent are the processes in place prior to the publication of an article?

Those who have had publications would realize that the processes can be fairly simple, which is open to abuse. After submission of a paper, it is sent to the Editorial Board who will do the first vetting. It is then passed on to a few reviewers, who are usually fairly experienced in their field. If the submission is accepted by the reviewers, the Editorial Board will then have the final decision in publication. In this process, one can soon notice that there is presumed integrity in the submission of the paper.

Data fabrication
Can data be fabricated? Yes. In the event that the paper is scrutinized and questions arise, only then will a more thorough investigation be carried out, looking closer in the case files and more solid physical evidence that supports the paper.

So how much fraud is there in scientific publications? How many of them truly conform to the ethical guidelines that exist? The answer to this is unknown. Even most journals do not require that the investigators be drilled in “Good Clinical Practice” guidelines and assume that this is the trait of all scientific investigators. What we know may only be the tip of the iceberg.

Increase in the number of journals
The number of journals have skyrocketed over the years. This will no doubt put considerable strain on the Editorial Boards of these journals to find capable reviewers. Hence, many reviewers are inexperienced and thus allow poorly written scripts to get through.

Citations/Impact factor
The impact of a journal is often tied to the number of citations of their articles. This can give an inaccurate picture on the quality of an article. Often cited articles may not necessarily be better. There is also often a practice of citing your own articles to increase the number of citations.

Academic Pressures
Many universities worldwide often tie promotions to the number of publications. This has resulted in many academicians being pressured to write. Some of these pressures can translate to unethical practices, in order to increase the number of publications. Fabrication of data often sprouts. Often times, there is pressure to produce results from grant allocations and a negative trial result can be looked upon as a failure, as often times a negative trial will be less likely published.

“Publish or Perish”
A phrase synonymous with academic life. It paints a scenario that failure is not acceptable. It sets the tone for academicians to publish, no matter what. Many journals are now a culpable partner in this culture, where attracting submission of articles has sounded more like a sales pitch.

The truth will one day be told.

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