Wednesday, June 7, 2017

How Much Cancer Research is Fake?

By Professor Doom

     It seems every month or so there’s another “breathtaking breakthrough” in cancer research, with a miracle cure just around the corner. As a cancer survivor, I pay attention to such things, because nothing predisposes someone to cancer more than having already had cancer…one of those breakthrough treatments might be used on me, after all.

     Thing is, I was “cured” by a treatment protocol nearly identical to what I would have had 30 years ago…none of these amazing new breakthroughs ever seem to pan out despite the good press and published research. Seeing as I’ll probably need one of those breakthroughs, it worries me greatly that so many promising researchers with promising results end up with nothing in the end. What’s up here?

      Psychology as a research field was in the news some time back, because the bulk of the studies, even “landmark” studies by famous researchers, with results that supposedly changed fundamental ideas in psychology, cannot be replicated. Further poking around revealed some fraud, but most of the issues were dismissed—psychology is a “soft” science, after all.

       It’s not just psychology, though, at long last we’re finally looking at our intensely bureaucratic peer review system and realizing that something has gone horribly, horribly wrong. There’s been far too much trust placed in a system with no oversight, and much like checks for cheating in a college classroom often reveal a majority of fake students, we’re starting to see it’s about the same in “research.”

     But cancer research is different, right? I mean, it can literally be a matter of life and death here…surely when we look for fraud here it won’t be so bad, right?

      Alas, no:

     Before going further, I need to explain why “peer review” is valued. I suspect the gentle reader has been led to believe the reason is because a paper reviewed by peers is a better paper, as other scholars have looked at the results and research methods and determined them to be valid. It has long been presented as the gold standard of scientific research.


     The gentle reader has been misled. The reason why peer review is “the way” for academics is because administrators with no education themselves took over education.  Since these guys know nothing, they decided “peer review” could take the place of having actual scholars working with scholars. The only way to advance, even survive, in higher ed as a researcher is to successfully publish peer reviewed research, as administrators have no capacity to understand scientific research, even on a rudimentary level (note: this link discusses what actually goes on in 8000 level research courses in Administration doctoral programs).

      But administrators with no education still get to decide if the research is worthy. Since they know nothing, it’s a simple matter to set up a fake peer review system every bit as corrupt as the (extensive) cheating systems many of our students use…no admin could figure this out.

       While administrators don’t have the acumen to detect fraud, journals are starting to double check the system, instead of relying on good faith. The results have been dismal:

The journal Tumor Biology is retracting 107 research papers after discovering that the authors faked the peer review process. This isn’t the journal’s first rodeo. Late last year, 58 papers were retracted from seven different journals— 25 came from Tumor Biology for the same reason.

     How do these journals get fake reviewers? Well, they asked the researcher to suggest a reviewer. This is not unreasonable, research topics can be pretty arcane, and you can’t just ask a random stranger to analyze a paper on variations within the DNA of the red-toed Hungarian centipede and expect him to know exactly what to expect.

     So, the researcher provides fake contact information, and possibly a fake name (or even the name of a real person, but the e-mail address is for someone else). The scheme is good, but eventually the journal caught on, because the peer reviewers behaved suspiciously:

“When a lot of the fake peer reviews first came up, one of the reasons the editors spotted them was that the reviewers responded on time,”

      Reviewing a paper sucks—it’s a completely thankless unpaid job (when scholars were in control of education, there was gratitude for scholarly work like this, but now, admin doesn’t respect it because there’s no benefit to admin), and if you’re going to do it right, it’s going to take time. So, “real” reviewers generally have to be harassed into doing it at all, much less on time.

      So, the fake reviewers were suspicious, because they acted like spending a great deal of time on a thankless, unpaid, job was really fun and interesting work. Now, the journal intends to weed out these fake reviewers, but this really is just the barest of tips of how bad the fraud goes…once you’re willing to accept the reality of how higher education works today, how desperate our generally untenured researchers are to get published, and how a higher education system that is jammed with fraud and corruption at doesn’t motivate an academic researcher at the bottom to be particularly honest in dealing with it. I mean, if admin lies and takes advantage of you nearly every day, how much sleep will you lose about lying and taking advantage of admin’s ignorance?

     They found some completely fake reviewers for papers they were about to publish, and that’s nice. What of papers published in previous years? Comparably garbage, one could reasonably suspect.

       Moving forward, even if we get rid of completely fake reviewers, what’s to prevent collusion? “I promise to review your research paper and approve it if you promise to review my paper and approve it” is not a difficult arrangement to make, especially with a colleague just as desperate as you are, with massive student loans to pay off, no job security, and needing to publish right away.

      That’s just at the researcher level, what about at the editor level? Editors at different journals can decide to swip/swap fake papers. The gentle reader should know that many papers are, after publication, read by a dozen people or less. I’m really not joking how goofy the system is; a colleague who I worked with at a minor institution started to game the system at maximum level, publishing well over 100 papers a year, year after year, using methods I’ve only touched on.

     He’s in the ivy league now, earning bank and still gaming the system with a ridiculous, positively ridiculous, number of papers published each year. You’d think an administrator would ask “how is this guy publishing 6 months’ worth of research every 2 weeks?” but admin gets credit for being at an institution with many publications, so isn’t about to ask an obvious question like that…the answer might cut into his bonus. This stuff is so out of control for the same reason we have community college campuses with 40% or more fake students on them, students that never come to class, but nevertheless get those loan checks and increase the enrollment numbers. Admin just wants numbers, and doesn’t care how to get them.

      I completely understand how the reader might think this is just some colossal joke amongst the pointy-headed academics, and, considering how much of it would be worthless even if legitimate, I can see the reader’s point. Seriously, thousands of papers on Shakespeare are published every year, and it’s obvious that none of those papers are life-changing, or will influence humanity in any way (but you gotta get those things published if you want to keep your job…). In science, particularly medical science, it’s rather important for the papers to be legitimate.

     While I grant that most of this gigantic systematic fraud can be ignored safely enough…someone (me, for example) might need one of those papers to be legitimate at some point.