Academic fraud in the spotlight

New study calls for Canada-wide policy on research misconduct

Corrections appended – Sunday, Sep 18, 2011

Canada needs a better way to monitor and respond to research misconduct, according to a report published by the not-for-profit Canadian Council of Academies (CCA) on October 21. The report, titled “Honesty, Accountability and Trust: Fostering Research Integrity in Canada,” was produced in response to federal government findings of 38 cases of abuse that have occurred out of 160 alleged cases of scientific misconduct in the last decade. The CCA’s report uses the Lethbridge College definition of research misconduct, which includes “fabrication, falsification and plagiarism…[and] conflict of interest omissions.”

Paul Davenport, former president of the University of Western Ontario, chaired the panel that produced the report for the CCA – a third of whose board members are nominated by the federal Ministry of Industry. According to its website, the organization is dedicated to “science-based, expert assessments to inform public policy development in Canada.”

In an email to The Daily, Davenport said academic misconduct is hard to track. “Canada, the U.S., and other countries, have no way of estimating what percentage of misconduct cases are actually reported,” he wrote. “It is not possible to state how many cases there are, what the trend in the number of cases is, and in what disciplines the cases occur.”

The CCA’s report calls for the creation of a Canadian Council for Research Integrity (CCRI), which would be independent from the federally funded Tri-Council, the body currently mandated to supervise issues of research integrity. The CCRI would “function as a much-needed educational and advisory arm on issues of research integrity. Its key role would be to build and promote a proactive approach to research integrity in Canada,” the report reads.

CCA Director of Communications Cathleen Meechan noted, however, that this report does not tackle specific cases of academic misconduct. “There is not any set of clear evidence that says one way or another about cases of misconduct and if there is an overwhelming amount of cases in one field or another,” she said. “There has not been enough research done on research misconduct itself.”

The report is meant to provide the federal government with information with which they can create policies around research integrity. “We provide a diagnosis of sorts and then the government determines what kind of prescription they want to pursue,” said Meechan. “This report was requested as part of a review that the Tri-Council is undertaking on research integrity. It will help to inform that review. We think that this is a good report to spur an important discussion within the research community about research integrity.”

The report concludes that there is a need to instill a culture of research integrity in Canada. In order for this to happen, the report continues, there needs to be a common way of approaching breaches of academic integrity across Canada.

“We need to have a much more systematic approach taken at the university level to research integrity,” said Meechan.

Davenport stressed the importance of creating a better system in dealing with academic misconduct. “We live in a knowledge-based society, where research is vital to our future social and economic health, and research can only be used for public policy if it is viewed as trustworthy by citizens and their governments.  Failure to deal with the research integrity issue ultimately will mean that even outstanding research will not have the impact on public policy that it should.  All Canadians have a very large stake in this issue.”

Sherwin review kept secret

McGill has completed an internal review of potential academic misconduct by professor Barbara Sherwin. In an email sent to The Daily on Wednesday, Provost Anthony Masi said that McGill will not make the results public. The message read simply, “The investigation into the allegations of research misconduct is complete. In accord with University regulations, the results are confidential.”

In August of last year, Sherwin was accused of putting her name to an academic article she did not write. The article, published in April 2000 in the peer-reviewed Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, explored various hormonal and non-hormonal pharmacological treatment options for age-associated memory loss. Sherwin did not receive financial renumeration for reviewing, and attaching her name to, the article.

Court documents from August 2009 state that the article was written by a freelance writer working with the firm DesignWrite, who was paid by Wyeth. The article was then sent to Sherwin, whose name eventually appeared alone on the article.

“It is an error I regret and which had never occurred before or since,” Sherwin told the Toronto Star last August.

In August 2009, the Star obtained court documents showing that Sherwin was contacted by DesignWrite about writing a second article about estrogen treatments months after the ghostwritten article was published. Sherwin told the Star she did not use any material provided by DesignWrite for the second article, which was published in 2003.

In McGill’s “Regulations Concerning Investigation of Research Misconduct,” it states that “the Provost shall determine whether any government agencies, professional societies, professional licensing boards, editors of journals or other publications, collaborators of the Respondent, or other relevant parties should be notified of the outcome of the investigation.” In Sherwin’s case, the Provost has decided to keep the information under wraps.

Doug Sweet, Director of Media Relations at McGill, confirmed that the review was completed at the beginning of the summer. When asked who conducted the review, Sweet replied, “The investigation was all internal, but I don’t know the identity of the panelists.”

Sherwin refused to answer any questions on the matter.

Due to an editorial error, in the printed version of this article (News, Nov 1, pg. 5) there are several inaccuracies. It was incorrectly stated that McGill decided to keep the results of its internal investigation confidential; it is in fact University policy to keep the results of such investigations confidential. The article also falsely credited Wyeth with publishing Sherwin’s April 2000 paper, the article was actually published by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. The contents of Sherwin’s paper were also incorrectly interpreted, stating that it explored the possible benefits of estrogen treatments in helping with memory loss. The Daily regrets the errors.