Stem cell scientists reveal 'unethical' work pressures

From "paradigm changer" to "sloppy and irresponsible". In just two months, two papers revealing a simple way to turn adult cells into embryonic-like stem cells went from being heralded as ground-breaking to being investigated over their credibility.

Stem cell research is touted as the way to a medical revolution, but all too often accusations of poor practice arise. To glean some insight into why, New Scientist asked 1000 stem cell researchers from around the world to answer an anonymous survey about the pressures of their work. More than 110 replied. Some admitted to faked results, others told of unethical behaviour from superiors, and several placed the blame on high-profile journals.

Just over half believe stem cell research is under greater scrutiny than other biomedical fields. "It is because the implications for therapeutics are greater than in other areas," said one researcher. Almost a fifth said this affects their work. Some said it made them more rigorous, while others said they feel forced to find clinical applications too soon.

Sixteen per cent said they have felt pressure to submit a paper that was incomplete or contained unverified information. "There is a tremendous pressure to publish, in order to receive funding. Shortcuts are, therefore, not unusual," said one respondent. "It happens when we know competitors are going to publish the same story," admitted a principal investigator.

Several researchers said they felt pressure to publish or perish. "You have to rush things out or miss critical career fellowships," said one.

Three people said they had felt pressure from peers or superiors to falsify data, or to do something they consider unethical, and five people said "yes" when asked if they or a colleague had ever falsified or augmented data that ended up in a published paper. "I know of numerous instances where fellows with, at times, the knowledge of their mentors, have published falsified data," said one professor.

View a pdf of the full results of the survey

Superiors received some of the blame. "Supervisors and mentors get very excited about data, but some people then become scared to tell them it could not be validated later," said an assistant professor. One postdoc blamed mistakes in his lab's papers on inadequate handling of medical statistics. One professor said: "Sometimes one's job is called into question, and superiors have been known to try and force premature publication and take credit for findings... when they don't even know the content of the work."

Misinterpretation of results was a common concern. "[People] deliberately ignore inconvenient data in order to support their likely erroneous conclusions," said one assistant professor.

The results echo a 2009 study that spanned all scientific fields, says Ivan Oransky, co-founder of website Retraction Watch. In that, 2 per cent admitted to falsification or fabrication, and about a third admitted to other questionable research practices.

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Stem cell scientists reveal 'unethical' work pressures

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