Peer Review Week 2022: Interview with Rafal Marsalek, Si Ming Man and Jiding Li about their views on research integrity as scholars and editors

[RM]: I think something that might be easy to overlook when you’re working on your own project within the confines of a laboratory environment is that science is a collective social enterprise, and publishing results – which is becoming increasingly easier – is a big part of it. And so it bears a lot of responsibility not only to conduct research honestly and rigorously but also to communicate it transparently and without bias. The impact of research papers can be far-reaching: a single paper can affect clinical practice, it can affect public policies (health, economic, environmental – choose what works for you), it can be the basis of safety standards etc. Fraud, misconduct, or just questionable practices can have two immediate serious effects. Let me give you examples.

First, it can have a significant impact on policies and practices. We don’t have to look far: the pandemic has given us examples galore. One of them is hydroxychloroquine, a drug for malaria, lupus, and some other conditions, which was tested for COVID in early 2020 in Gautret et al. Since then the results of this paper have been quite comprehensive exposedbut not before they stimulated more research and sometimes questionable clinical trials, and not before public figures’ support for the use of this drug for COVID likely led to a buying spree and then Hydroxychloroquine deficiency In clinical settings where it was already designed to be used. In some countries the use of hydroxychloroquine has been promoted by the authoritiesTo become an effective public health policy de facto, if not in name. It seems clear now that it was never the wonderful drug that was promised. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a study exploring it as a possibility though. But if such a study was properly designed, it likely showed what subsequent studies did: that hydroxychloroquine has Little clinical benefit in the treatment of COVID. We can now only speculate how many lives this could have saved or experiments that could have been conducted instead to explore more realistic treatment options.

Second, violations of research integrity can result in a significant waste of money and resources. We tend to think of scientific research and the pursuit of discovery as a higher goal, but no matter how much value you place on knowledge, it doesn’t change the fact that all research costs money and no one has an endless pot of gold to pay for it. Thus, if a fraudulent or otherwise inaccurate study is published and results in funds being awarded to follow lines of investigation that might stem from these (which may be incorrect) findings, that’s valuable funding that doesn’t go anywhere else when possible. Even if the fraud is detected and occurs in a country with regulations that allow the government to at least try to recover some funds (such as the False Claim Act in the US), it can take a long time. Now imagine research that didn’t get the grant because it had to compete with the fraudulent application of a promising drug for some debilitating disease. Not being able to do this research has to do with more than the researchers’ curiosity or even their jobs – it could mean life or death for many patients.

[SMM]: The integrity of research is of paramount importance in science because it forms the basis for creating sound and reliable scientific knowledge. Research misconduct is harmful because it damages confidence in science and delays research progress, at the same time, wastes valuable time and resources.

[GL]: I think research integrity becomes more important as search results increase. Researchers must be able to trust each other’s work, which helps to speed up and also increase the quality of research.