What can journalists do to uncover scientific misconduct?

Starting things off, Steve Yentis, editor in chief of Anesthesia, recounted the stunning retraction statistics of three anesthesiologists. One, Joachim Boldt, has had a record 80 papers retracted, but will soon be surpassed by Yoshitaka Fujii, who has 193 papers under suspicion. For all three, concerns about their data arose post-publication, with doubts going back 20 years in the case of Fujii. The misconduct Yentis’ journal spots also manifests as plagiarism, ethical issues, and improper authorship credit.

Moving onto how journalists can expose misconduct, Peter Aldhous, San Francisco bureau chief for the New Scientist, described his experience in discovering flawed data and extensive image manipulation in Catherine Verfaillie's stem cell papers amidst American debates on the use of stem cells. 

Aldous said, “A lot more of this type thing happens than we care to think”. He asked whether “science writers are perky cheerleaders who don’t scrutinize enough,” a question that would echo for the rest of the day.

The problem is difficult to tackle, though. “Hours and hours of staring at images” was Aldous’ response to an audience member’s question about how he had carried out his work detecting image manipulation. The panel agreed that software for detecting image manipulation is needed.

Virginia Barbour is chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), which has grown to more than 7,000 journal editor members since its informal start in 1997. She reported that the JCB finds 1% of its papers have unacceptable image manipulation, and an audit by the US FDA found 2% of scientists guilty of serious misconduct.

As Barbour explained, authors, journals, institutions, and journalists all want to publish big stories, a priority at odds with producing reliable literature. Consequently, “We all need to acknowledge the scientific literature is not perfect”. Even without misconduct, she said, it is only “a partial version of the truth”.

Scientific misconduct is without a doubt one of Jay Rosen’s ‘wicked problems’, extending far beyond the scope of journalism. Still, journalists must recognize that it happens. Reaching the goal described by Barbour as “a scientific literature we can trust” requires keeping a critical eye on the science.

Misconduct did not come up during the ‘off-beat stories’ session, but as Yentis said, “The story is in the fact that there is misconduct”.

Catie Lichten, UKCSJ student scholar