We’ve only covered one retraction from Nigeria. But as we’ve often noted, retraction rates don’t necessarily correlate with rates of problematic research, so the low number doesn’t really answer the question in this post’s title.
Lucky for us, a group of authors have started publishing surveys of Nigerian scientists on the subject. In a new such survey published in BMC Medical Ethics, Patrick I. Okonta and Theresa Rossouw asked 150 researchers to fill out a questionnaire during a scientific conference in 2010. Most of them — 133 — complied. Their findings?
Half of the respondents (50.4%) were aware of a colleague who had committed misconduct, defined as “non-adherence to rules, regulations, guidelines, and commonly accepted professional codes or norms”. Over 88% of the researchers were concerned about the perceived amount of misconduct prevalent in their institution and 96.2% believed that one or more forms of scientific misconduct had occurred in their workplace. More than half (52.7%) rated the severity of penalties for scientific misconduct in their work environment as low. Furthermore, the majority (56.1%) were of the view that the chance of getting caught for scientific misconduct in their work environment was low.
In some ways, as the authors note, those results seem to mirror what other surveys have found in the West. The types of misconduct, however, varied somewhat from what is typically seen in Western countries:
When asked to rate how frequently they perceived various acts of scientific misconduct occurred in their workplace, the majority of researchers indicated that plagiarism, falsification of data and selective dropping of data from ‘outlier’ cases occurred ‘occasionally’ (Table 1). The majority of researchers also believed that intentional protocol violations related to subject enrolment, intentional protocol violations related to procedures, falsification of biosketch, resume or reference list and disagreements about authorship occurred ‘seldom’. Pressure from study sponsors to engage in unethical practices was perceived to be the least common type of scientific misconduct in their workplace, while falsification of data was perceived to be the most frequent.
We asked Daniele Fanelli, who wrote a 2009 systematic review and meta-analysis on rates of misconduct, and who turns out, not surprisingly, to have reviewed the new study, for his comments. He told Retraction Watch:
There are few studies on misconduct in non-European and non-US countries, so any contribution to such literature is to be encouraged and is worthy of attention. On the other hand, survey results on misconduct should always be taken with a grain of salt.
Like all tools to study misconduct, surveys have important limitations. Meta-analyses suggests that simple methodological factors can make a dramatic difference on the results. One of these factors is how generic the questions in the survey are, and this study used a pre-esiting questionnaire with a definition of misconduct that is very very broad. Other major confounding factors in surveys, which are very hard to quantify and rarely are, are the knowledge and awareness that respondents have on these issues, and how much respondents might feel unconsciously pressed to satisfy the expectations of the study itself. These and other limitations could explain some the highly unexpected and unprecedented findings reported by this study, for example the finding that data fabrication is believed to be more common than plagiarism and even questionable research practices, a result which is completely at odds with all previous surveys in Europe and the US as well as with what logic would suggest.
Having said that, this is actually not the only survey to suggest that data fabrication might be unusually high in African countries, and further research could bring some very unsettling surprises.
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