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Peer Review Week 2022: an interview with Rafal Marszalek, Si Ming Man and Guideng Li about their views on research integrity as scientists and editors

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

First, they can have a major influence on policies and practices. We don’t have to search far: the pandemic has provided us with ample examples. One would be that of hydroxychloroquine, a drug for malaria, lupus, and a few other conditions, which was tested for COVID in early 2020 in Gautret et al. The findings of this paper have since been quite thoroughly debunked, but not before they spurred more, sometimes questionable, research and clinical trials, and not before public figures’ support for the use of this drug for COVID most likely led to the buying spree and thence shortages of hydroxychloroquine in clinical settings where it is actually designed to be used. In some countries the use of hydroxychloroquine was promoted by authorities, becoming effectively a public health policy by fact, if not by name. It seems fairly clear now that it never was the wonder drug it was promised to be. That is not to say that there should not have been a study exploring it as a possibility though. But had such a study been designed properly, it would have likely shown what later studies did: that hydroxychloroquine has little clinical benefit in COVID treatment. And we can only speculate now on the number of lives this could have saved or the trials that could have been run instead to explore more realistic therapeutic options.

Second, breaches of research integrity can lead to a huge waste of money and resources. We tend to think of scientific research and pursuit of discovery as a higher goal, but no matter what value you put on knowledge, it does not change the fact that all research costs money and nobody has a bottomless pot of gold to pay for it. And so if a fraudulent or otherwise inaccurate study is published and leads to money being given to pursue lines of inquiry that may stem from these (potentially untrue) findings, this is precious funding that is not going elsewhere when it could. Even if fraud is uncovered and happens in a country that has regulations that allow the government to at least attempt to recuperate some of the money (such as the False Claim Act in the US), this can take a very long time. Now imagine that the research that did not get the grant because it had to compete with the fraudulent application is for a promising drug for some debilitating disease. Not being able to do this research is about more than researchers’ curiosity or even careers – it may mean life or death for many patients.

[SMM]: Research integrity is of the highest importance in science because it forms the basis of creating sound and reliable scientific knowledge. Research misconduct is damaging because it compromises trust in science and delays research progress, and at the same time, wastes valuable time and resources.

[GL]: I think research integrity becomes more and more important as expanding research findings have been reported. Researchers must be able to trust each other’s work, which would help speed up and also increase the quality of research.

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