When a new study is released—especially if it is widely covered by the media—the average person will make a few assumptions. At minimum, we’d like to believe the research was actually conducted. We’d also like to believe the findings were honestly reported. After all, if the research made it this far, it couldn’t be fraudulent. Right?
Not necessarily. As a recent blog post for BMJ Opinion points out, there is a systemic problem of false research in the medical field. An analysis of 526 trials submitted to Anaesthesia found 14% to contain false data—many from China, Egypt, India, Iran, Japan, South Korea, and Turkey.
In the same publication a subsequent examination of individual patient data from trials found many to be false, including 100% in Egypt, 75% in Iran, 54% in India, and 46% in China. It was concluded there might be hundreds of thousands of fraudulent trials published.
The impact of fraudulent and flawed research reaches far beyond the credibility of medical journals. This perceived knowledge determines our standard of care and dictates the policies and treatment protocols of hospitals and doctors’ offices. It influences the products we use, and our daily behavior.
Scientific research also shapes public policy created at every level, from Congress to local public school districts. After a study suggested that wearing masks may expose children to high carbon dioxide levels, some U.S. school districts reversed their mask-wearing policies in the midst of the pandemic. The study was published in JAMA Pediatrics and widely covered by the press. It was later quietly retracted.
Retractions rarely get as much fanfare as the initial announcement. So, when decision-makers jump to change policies immediately following a widely covered study, they sometimes get it wrong. And when they do, consumers and businesses pay the price.
It takes time for science to settle. It requires thoroughly evaluating new information and waiting to see if the findings hold up under scrutiny from the scientific community, are able to be replicated, and if the replication is published before changing policies that impact lives and livelihoods. This is not always what our decision-makers want to hear. Perhaps more importantly, it’s not always something they can do themselves.
While the scientific community works to find solutions to prevent research fraud, we have developed a framework to help people become active, skeptical consumers of scientific information. Our Credibility Criteria is a nine-point checklist to determine whether a study’s findings are valid based on the quality of the methodology and scientific evidence. It can be used by everyone, from lawmakers and regulators to average people.
Assuming all research is fraudulent might be a little strong. But we cannot passively take scientific claims at face value, regardless of where they are published or how they are covered in the media. As many of our moms always said, “just because it’s popular, doesn’t mean it’s good.”