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Two years ago I read a paper that I thought had implausibly good results. The data were archived online so I examined them: they were clearly fake. The first author replaced them with other data which were also clearly falsified/fabricated.

I reported the paper to the relevant University. Several more versions of the data were produced, and the University's Research Integrity Office (RIO) closed the case apparently satisfied that the correct version of the data had finally been found. A corrigendum was published. However the new data contain suspicious patterns and several figures in the paper are cannot be reproduced. I don't know of any explanation for the multiple versions of the data. All versions of the had file-creation time-stamps that post-dated publication.

The original specimens are in the RIO's possession. A portion of them could be re-analysed non-destructively in 1-3 days (relevant MSc-grade experience required), which would help assuage doubts about the veracity of the paper. The RIO has declined to do this, citing lack of resources and personal skill.

  • Am I being unreasonable in expecting the RIO to do more than (apparently at least) take the author's word on trust regarding the final data being correct without verifying them?

  • How could I arrange for the specimens to be re-analysed by a third party so that the RIO/journal would accept gross differences from the final data as evidence of malpractice?

  • The RIO tells me that I should contact the author directly to address the irreproducible figures. I doubt the first author will be keen to cooperate - they almost certainly know that I reported their paper to the RIO, know that the RIO has closed the case, and I have no authority to compel disclosure of files etc. Can anything be done here?

I believe the RIO is seeking to avoid making an adverse finding.

PS. The University in question is a large, well-respected and well-funded institution.

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    You could always write a paper exposing the fraudulent results. For example, look at the Google Scholar search results for "Duke cancer fraud. Jun 8, 2017 at 13:29
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    That was the solution the editor gave me two years ago. At the time I thought it an abrogation of responsibility on their part. I still do, but am beginning to view it as a possibility. Of course any expose would be stronger if I had reanalyses.
    – 44tjr
    Jun 8, 2017 at 13:34
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    It seems unreasonable for the RIO to devote 1-3 days to investigate this issue. It seems reasonable that you devote time to re-analyse.
    – user2768
    Jun 8, 2017 at 15:18
  • @user2768 it is the RIO's job to investigate credible allegations of malpractice, which they agreed mine were. The RIO would not be able to do the reanalysis themselves but would need to ask (and maybe pay) someone else to do it.
    – 44tjr
    Jun 8, 2017 at 20:12
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    I wonder if you could use the Freedom of Information Act to get some of the internal communications? Jun 9, 2017 at 5:31

1 Answer 1

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Your first mistake was to report the irregularities to the relevant university. If that was the university of the offender, then their primary interest is to deflect/reduce any possible damage to their institution. Clearly, publicly uncovering unethical behaviour within its own university does not serve this purpose.

There have been documented cases in the UK, where the public reporting by the head of department (HoD) of plagiarism resulted in the sacking, not of the offender, but of the HoD, because of damage done to the University.

If you're seriously concerned, you should expose this to the editors of the respective journals or, better, to the public. The problem with the latter is, of course, that you may make strong enemies. One option may be to find allies, i.e. influential senior researchers in your field who are prepared to co-author any publication and/or to support/sign your letters to relevant editors.

In the end of the day, malpractice like this is drowned in the scientific discussion. If the results cannot be reproduced in independent studies, then they loose credibility and will be ignored. So perhaps, you should not spend too much frustrating effort on this.

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  • Alas, I contacted the journal first with the support of the pre-eminent scientist in the field. It took the editor three months to reply that they were not interested in investigating. They believe that "policing the accuracy of data sets ... is beyond the remit of journal editors"
    – 44tjr
    Jun 10, 2017 at 11:32
  • If your field of research has an active free open access online publication forum, such as arXiv, then a publication there of senior scientists of the field is a possibility.
    – Walter
    Jun 10, 2017 at 17:10
  • From what you say about the reply from the editor, it sounds as if you did not really suggest unethical behaviour and in this way allowed the editor to dodge the issue.
    – Walter
    Jun 10, 2017 at 17:12

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