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Research with integrity – GenAi, paper mills and inclusivity

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by Cancer Research UK | Analysis

27 June 2024

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Integrity

As the global research integrity community came together for the 8th World Conference on Research Integrity, we asked: what are the big issues and what can we do to tackle them? Andrew Porter and the team give us the low-down from the front line of research integrity…

This entry is part 13 of 13 in the series Research Integrity


Climbing one of the hills near the Acropolis on the first evening of the 8th World Conference on Research Integrity (WCRI), I was treated to a wonderful view of Athens. Having taken the Metro from the airport, I’d only seen Athens at street level, but here it was… the whole city spread out.

This fresh perspective – seeing the big picture – made me think about the opportunities a conference like this offers to do the same. The space it can afford to think about what makes research tick, the different roles and activities supporting good research, and some of the bad practices affecting the quality of science.

The field of metascience, or research on research, is rapidly growing, evidenced by many presentations at this year’s conference about how to measure research integrity.

It may strike you as unusual that there are conferences on research integrity, but over the years it has become an active area of research in its own right. The field of metascience, or research on research, is rapidly growing, evidenced by many presentations at this year’s conference about how to measure research integrity. How can we know if a new training actually works? What data do we have on equality and diversity that could help us understand whose voices are not being heard in research, academia and publishing? How many publications contain fabricated, falsified or plagiarised data?

These and many other questions were discussed over 4 days in sessions ranging from the philosophical to the highly specific and practical.

The conferences began as a joint U.S. – European venture, expanding from a relatively small meeting in 2007 in Lisbon to this gathering of 800 attendees.  Along the way the conferences have produced various statements – co-created by attendees – which have helped shape research practices worldwide.  These include the 2010 Singapore Statement, which set out a values-based definition of research integrity, and forms the basis for the UK Concordat to Support Research Integrity and the recent Cape Town Statement on fairness, equity and diversity in research. For more on the WCRI, see Catherine’s earlier blog.

Intelligent approaches to Gen AI

Some of the big areas covered at the conference included paper mills and fake clinical trials; the implications of generative AI; and equity, diversity and inclusion.  It’s clear, however, these aspects are deeply interwoven.

For instance, generative AI tools (many of which are now embedded in commercial software such as Photoshop 24) can be used to create fake text and data for paper mills, but might also help screen for fraudulent activity, support researchers writing in English as a second language, and require good training and education for ethical use.

Much of the conversation around gen AI is focussed on creating guidelines that are flexible and values-based; the field is moving so fast that making them too specific risks guidance going out of date. Addressing gen AI through the lens of existing research integrity structures however makes for more generalisable support, as discussed previously.

Fake it ‘till you break it…

Paper mills were a recurring theme across many different topic areas. I came away with a strong sense that we need to raise awareness amongst researchers – there is a real risk that fake research is polluting the literature.

Paper mills produce fake research publications for profit. Whole networks exist purely to sell authorship online, creating fake data and text, using fake email addresses and creating fake academics – even taking over the whole editorial and peer review process to completely bypass scrutiny. It’s a shocking concept, but  evidence of the scale of the problem keeps accumulating. For instance, over 8000 papers were retracted last year from Hindawi journals, a subsidiary of Wiley, primarily due to paper mill activity.

The pollution of scientific literature by fake studies leads to miscalculation of the size and importance of whole fields of research, meaning we can come to wrong conclusions on safety and efficacy

However, the research integrity community is stepping up to counter this. Sleuths, like Elisabeth Bik and Jana Christopher, work to detect these activities, along with academics developing tools to screen publications, such as Jack Wilkinson from the University of Manchester who presented the INSPECT-SR tool aimed at weeding out fake clinical trials.

Research integrity teams at publishers try to verify authorship, screen papers, obtain raw data, and use tools like iThenticate to spot plagiarism and image alteration. However, those wily paper mills will often submit manuscripts to multiple journals at the same time, and so the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) and STM, the trade body for academic publishers, are working on ways for publishers to spot these multiple submissions.

But this is, clearly, not just harmless cat-and-mouse antics. The very real dangers of this fraudulent activity were brought home in a number of sessions. One speaker reported raising concerns about more than 900 articles related to studies about women’s health, and while this has led to 151 retractions and 75 expressions of concern, a large volume of problematic literature persists – and it can take an average of 3 years for journals to address concerns.

The pollution of scientific literature by fake studies leads to miscalculation of the size and importance of whole fields of research, meaning we can come to wrong conclusions on safety and efficacy, even from systematic reviews (the gold standard for evidence-based medicine, influencing medical practice and government decision-making processes), and drive researchers down wasteful and frustrating dead ends.

Familiar faces from this blog were joined by CRUK’s wider research integrity group.
Familiar faces from this blog were joined by CRUK’s wider research integrity group. (l-r)Minna Ventsel (The Francis Crick Institute), Karen Woodey (CRUK Cambrindge Institute), Catherine Winchester (CRUK Scotland Institute), Eleanor Adams (The Francis Crick Institute), Andrew Porter (CRUK Manchester Institute) and Sue Russell (CRUK).

Solution suggestions

How to address these problems? Suggestions included more people screening for issues already in the literature (like Jennifer Byrne whose team recently identified fake cell lines entering the literature), more research on the scale of the problem (such as from the new voluntary body United2Act), awareness raising for researchers and editors, and pre-screening manuscripts and verifying authenticity of data at an institutional level.

Attendees also advocated for deeper reform of academic publishing and reward models, for slower science (and the publication of fewer papers) and to move away from researchers being judged primarily on the number and type of papers they publish – something many institutions and funders have signed up to, but which still persists in research culture.

Some suggestions to address fraud – such requiring authors to have academic email addresses – could have unintended consequences, as researchers in low- and middle-income countries are often not provided with these. This reflected the ‘world’ part of the conference; funds are provided to support attendance from low- and middle-income countries, and it was encouraging to hear a diverse range of perspectives. A strong case was made that bringing in under-represented voices, making research truly global, representative and fair, is important for all those involved in research.

If we were to zoom out of the specific details of the conference, and try to get an overview, it might look something like: Bring in, Build up, and Keep out.

Bring in diverse and previously excluded voices. Build up good research practices, including for those researchers who are trying their best to act with integrity. Keep out fraudulent research, disinformation and fake data.

This framing might help us determine which kinds of initiatives, driven by which parts of the research community, are most effective and impactful for supporting integrity. WCRI has shown us much of what we have to do, and we have a decent map of the routes. The next step is to get back down to street level and implement some of them.

Take-home thoughts

Several CRUK research professionals attended WCRI – here’s what they think you should know…

Catherine Winchester, Head of the Research Integrity Service at the CRUK Scotland Institute

“It was clear that whatever role we have in a research organisation, we all have a part to play in collectively improving research quality and reproducibility, and that research integrity advisers are key partners in this endeavour. “Plan – do – act – check”, the take home message from Anja Gilis, director of preclinical quality planning and strategy at Johnson & Johnson, struck a chord with me and epitomises the iterative approach we have been implementing at the CRUK Scotland Institute.

One ‘doing’ initiative I learned about at the conference is the RoSiE project to foster reproducible open science in Europe, which is developing guidelines and training materials on open and FAIR science. And falling under ‘checking’, benchmarking surveys on culture, research integrity barriers and incentives were a popular theme at the conference. Looking forward it will be interesting to see how their information is used to act to change behaviour and practices. Indeed, the UK Committee on Research Integrity has undertaken a project to explore indicators of research integrity, which was presented by Jane Alfred.”

Sue Russell, Senior Policy and Governance Manager at CRUK

“It always pays to see what resources already exist to help you achieve your integrity goals. For example, we learned about SOPs4RI which helps research organisations and funders develop their own Research Integrity Promotion Plans.

How funders can then translate these into adaptive funding policies and help embed into broader practices will be important. Noesk’s Strategy for Culture Change – shared more than once at WCRI – was useful reminder of the foundations and levels needed.

But it will take collective, cross-sector collaboration – researchers, research integrity teams, research organisations, publishers, sector bodies, and funders coming together – to discuss and resolve issues. Great examples of fruitful collaborations were showcased at the conference from Only Good Antibodies to improve biomedical research and CRUK’s own Registered Reports Funding Partnership pilot – our consortium between us a funder, research organisation and publishers working together to improve research quality.

Our Research Integrity Advisors at CRUK Institutes have built very strong foundations – both within their institutions and more broadly – on this culture change journey, which WCRI made me appreciate even more.”

All sessions of the 8th World Conference on Research Integrity were recorded, and recordings will be made publicly available 2 months after the conference.

Check out some of the posters presented by the CRUK integrity team at the 8th World Conference on Research Integrity

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Dr Andrew Porter

Author

Dr Andrew Porter

Andrew is Research Integrity and Training Adviser at Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute

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