Fixing the Fraud: Q&A with Dr Ginny Barbour

29 October 2012 by Pete Etchells, posted in SpotOn 2012 - fraud

Leading up to our session on academic misconduct and fraud at SpotOn London, Sifting the Evidence and Counterbalanced are hosting guest posts from session panel members. Today is the turn of Dr Ginny Barbour. Ginny has worked as both a doctor and scientist, before becoming an editor. She joined the Public Library of Science in 2004 and was one of the three founding editors of PLoS Medicine. She became Chair of COPE in March 2012. 


Can you tell us a bit about yourself, and your work for PLOS and COPE?

I came into editing after practicing as doctor, finally specialising in haematology, then working in basic research for several years. I joined the Lancet in 1999, and PLOS in 2004, where I was one of the three founding editors of PLOS Medicine. I got interested in PLOS and open access when I became aware that the Internet really allowed us the opportunity to radically rethink how medical and scientific information could be disseminated and built on - and that traditional publishers were slow to recognise this opportunity.

I had been aware of COPE when I was at the Lancet - the journal was a member and Sabine Kleinert, a Lancet Editor who was the recent past vice-chair  of COPE, was very involved with it. My first real exposure and need for advice form COPE came when we received a highly problematic paper at PLOS Medicine before we had even published our first issue! I was very grateful then to be able to call on the experience of other editors for how to handle it.


What is COPE? How can concerned researchers use it if they think something dodgy is going on?

COPE is a membership organisation of journal editors and publishers. We consider ourselves to be primarily a resource for editors - to help editors handle difficult ethical issues they encounter in their daily work  - and to provide a source of educational materials and other resources for anyone interested in publication ethics, but again, primarily editors. We have Codes of Conduct for Editors and Publishers, which we expect our members to abide by. If individuals have specific complaints about a publication ethics issue they should in the first instance ask the journal and/or the publisher to investigate.


What do you think are the main problems at the moment in academia, and what do you think is causing them?

There are two issues I'd like to highlight (there are many!):

1. Pressure to publish:

Researchers are under enormous pressure to publish in journals who are ranked highly according to impact factors, and, moreover, to publish rapidly. Because the prizes for publication can be high -  in terms of reputation and in some cases financially - this can lead to an environment that at the least condones sloppy practice rather than encouraging rigorous practice and at worst potentially can lead to misconduct in order to get results to publish.

2. Lack of negative studies in the research literature:

There is a huge amount of scientific research that never sees the light of day because researchers or journals don't think the results are worth publishing. This affects both basic research and medical research, and in the latter case leads to clinical studies that could affect practice not being available to health care professionals. Recently, an increasing consensus has emerged that failure to publish such studies in the context of clinical research in particular  should be considered misconduct. One of the journals at PLOS, PLOS ONE, has a primary aim of reducing bias in the literature by publishing all papers that are scientifically sound.


If you could pick one thing to change in order to deter academic misconduct, what would it be?

Academic misconduct covers such a huge area - from not publishing negative studies through to fiddling data and to conducting studies without ethical approval as weIl as encompassing publication misconduct in all its forms, from plagiarism to fabricated data presentation. The underlying thing that I think could make a huge difference in all these areas is better education about the whole range of misconduct in an effort to raise awareness of it. I'd like to have the situation where from the first time a child uses copy and paste on a computer they understand they can't use others’ work without attribution and for this education to continue throughout life, becoming increasingly sophisticated and detailed as the child moves through school into higher education and beyond.


Do you think journal editorial teams should take more of a responsibility in identifying potential cases of research misconduct? What could they do?

One of COPE's primary roles is to educate editors in what they can do to identify research misconduct and their responsibilities. From the interactions I have with COPE members I think the overwhelming majority of the editors do take this responsibility seriously. However, we are not an investigatory body ourselves for researchers. The role of editors is to be educated and aware of potential issues and to ensure that any cases identified are passed to the appropriate institution to investigate.


What role do you think funding bodies can play in promoting acceptable research practices?

Funding bodies have a huge amount of power, in that researchers are dependent on them. Having funders lay out what they expect from their researchers would be a powerful reminder of the need for acceptable research practices from the very first day researchers receive a grant. The other powerful bodies in this equation are the institutions, who provide the day to day environment for researchers, and hence can influence behaviour in a very concrete way.


What made you agree to be on this panel?

I'm very keen to be involved in wider discussions about research misconduct and the role of editors in dealing with it. I spend a lot of time talking with editors and know their perspective; it's therefore particularly useful for me to talk with other groups interested in this area. I'm looking forward to a lively discussion.

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