Lessons from a case of academic misconduct

How should academic institutions—universities, funders, and journal editors— address academic misconduct of the type now known to have been committed by Brian Wansink, John Dyson professor of marketing at Cornell University? Wansink has had a total of 13 articles retracted as of 10 October 2018, following investigation by Cornell which found “misreporting of research data, problematic statistical techniques, failure to properly document and preserve research results, and inappropriate authorship.”

Dr Gareth Hollands and Professor Theresa Marteau (Behaviour and Health Research Unit), writing with Professor Marcus Munafo (Bristol) in the BMJ, argue that open research practices provide the research community with a framework for minimising academic misconduct of the kind perpetrated by Wansink.

“What is lacking thus far is serious reflection by institutions—universities, funders, and journal editors—on the systemic aspects of their cultures and practices that might have contributed to the problem in the first place. This is in stark contrast to the aviation industry, which has an enviable safety record: when a disaster occurs, it is forensically examined not only to identify its proximal cause but also the wider system that allowed it to happen”.

Individual researchers can protect themselves against their own enthusiasm, and the incentives to discover something, by preregistering their study protocols and analysis plans. Journals and funders could also require preregistration of study protocols and mandate data sharing, not just for clinical trials but across research areas and methods. There may be cases where this is not appropriate, but in general, making research workflows transparent and subject to potential scrutiny should serve as a quality control measure, including ensuring data are thoroughly checked. Institutions could encourage open research practices by including these as criteria in job descriptions, supported by training in these approaches. There is no “one size fits all” solution that will apply across disciplines, but the culture of many parts of the research ecosystem needs to change if biomedical science is to have a record for reliability closer to that of the aviation industry.