Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Decent Exposure

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Decent Exposure

Article excerpt

Research data published online must be accessible to allow scrutiny by other academics if we are to prevent fraud, says Geoffrey Boulton.

A recent leader in Times Higher Education tackled the "murky matter" of research misconduct, arguing that UK institutions must be "fearless in shining a light on misconduct" ("Clarity begins at home", 23 August).

Institutions should indeed do what they can to discourage and expose fraud by their members. Many, however, lack the expertise to expose fraud in highly specialist research publications, and none has the resources to systematically scan them for evidence of fraud.

Historically, fraud and error have been most efficiently exposed when the evidence for published scientific claims has been accessible to rigorous scrutiny by peers. Open publication of theories and the data that support them has enabled this. The leader described sunlight as the best disinfectant to both deter and expose fraud, but the sun can only do its work if everything is out in the open.

The problem is that rapid and pervasive technological advances have changed the game. Although some argue that our unprecedented capacity to acquire, store, manipulate and transmit vast and complex data volumes places us on the verge of a second scientific revolution, it can also serve to make the data on which an argument is based inaccessible.

The evidence underlying a published scientific argument, including the full details of experiments and observations, all the data and an assessment of uncertainties, could once be contained between the covers of a journal article. Mega-, giga- or terabytes of data deny us that option. Fraudulent practice too frequently hides beneath an impenetrable data carapace, so that we need to find new ways of reasserting the historical values of openness. The authors of a Royal Society report, Science as an Open Enterprise, published in June, argue that where the thesis of a scientific paper depends on large data volumes that cannot be reproduced in the paper, the data must be concurrently accessible in a specified database so that other specialists in the same field can test its reproducibility and explore whether the thesis is supported by the data.

In the Jatinder Ahluwalia research misconduct case highlighted by THE ("Faking it", 23 August), while there is some reassurance that it was the difficulty of reproducing results that was crucial to exposure, greater openness and transparency could have prevented the situation getting to the stage that it did.

The genesis of the Royal Society report was partly in the furore that surrounded the leaking of emails from climate scientists at the University of East Anglia in 2009. …

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