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Scientific fraud and epidemiology

Many of us probably believed scientific fraud, at least in its most severe forms, was a problem in front line laboratory science where hot, promising and convincing hypotheses could not wait for real data to be corroborated. We are of course aware of the problems of biased reporting of epidemiologic data in order to increase the chances of having the paper accepted by journal editors and we know about the influence a private funding agency, like a pharmaceutical company, may have on the reporting. But we would not expect epidemiologists to fabricate data or to present biased results in a way that could cause harm to people. After all, we run a discipline within public health. We are here to protect the public from health hazards and we know that our data have to be analyzed in good faith. If we cannot be trusted to seek the truth with the imperfect instruments and data we have, we may well do more harm than good. That is what we teach our students and we state that in our collegial guidelines.

Recent examples indicate that epidemiologists may be guilty of the full range of scientific fraud. We now have examples where information of public health importance apparently was not disclosed in reporting of side effects of popular drugs like Vioxx 1 2 and recently Lancet had to withdraw a paper on NSAIDs and oral cancer because the data were fabricated 3 4 5 We have long advocated that researchers should open their data bases routinely to other researchers in order to get better quality studies and to avoid scientific fraud. Apparently, this is not enough. The data source in the NSAIDs study was based upon a partly open cohort that several people in Norway have access to.

These examples of misconduct must be taken very seriously, since our entire discipline relies upon trust. There are many possible ways of manipulating research results and if we cannot be trusted we have nothing to offer; nothing at all 6.

We encourage our colleagues who teach epidemiology to include research ethics and Good Epidemiologic Practice in their teaching. We encourage our colleagues who do peer reviews to ask for access to raw data if they spot signs of biased reporting or implausible data. We will not accept scientific fraud among members of the IEA.

Jorn Olsen, Shah Ebrahim, Chitr Sitthi-amorn

References

  1. The lesson of VIOXX – drug safety and sales. NEJM 2005; 352: 2576-8(2,3)
  2. Science 2005; 310: 1755
  3. Sudboe et al. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and the risk of oral cancer: a nested case-control study. Lancet 2005; 366: 1359-66.
  4. Eaton L. Norwegian researchers admits that his data were faked. BMJ 2006; 332: 193
  5. Report from the Investigation Commission appointed by Rikshospitalet – Radiumhospitalet MC and the University of Oslo January 18, 2006 www.radium.no/general/docs/ekbom/Report_Investigation_Commission.pdf
  6. Olsen J. Kafka’s truth seeking dogs. Epidemiology, in press.
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