11.3 Research integrity
Horton, R. (2004) ‘The lessons of MMR’, The Lancet, 363, 6 March 2004, pp 747–749 Elsevier. Copyright © 2004 Elsevier.
The latest debate surrounding Wakefield and colleagues’ paper has been enormously confusing. Public inquiries have been sought into the way ethics committees operate, how the legal services commission makes its decisions, and even, once again, into the safety of vaccines. A preliminary investigation by the UK's General Medical Council is underway. A furious debate about the actions of almost all protagonists has taken place. The press has become the courtroom for this very public dispute. But the media cannot be the only place to charge, investigate, prosecute, defend, judge, and pass verdicts on those who have been accused of research misconduct.
In 2000, a group representing the UK's Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) drew attention to a collective institutional failure to take allegations of research misconduct seriously.9 The absence of formal mechanisms within many universities and at a national level to investigate claims with visible due process means that publicly aired allegations leave everybody involved scrambling to respond in the best way they can. COPE has produced helpful guidance on how to deal with allegations of misconduct. But with no national body to which one can refer these allegations, the danger is that in any ensuing media furore good people are hurt by smear and innuendo. The appearance of institutions investigating themselves, while accepted as the norm in science and medicine, does little to strengthen public trust in a system that has such critical societal influence, and thus which requires transparent lines of accountability.
Present scientific and medical institutions have failed to act after years of encouragement and embarrassment. It is now up to Government to step in to create Britain's first Council for Research Integrity. Please, ministers, do so and do it now.