Much of the discussions on this blog are directly or indirectly related to the subject of research integrity. Research integrity refers to the ethical and professional standards that researchers must adhere to while conducting research. It involves conducting research in a way that allows others to have confidence and trust in the methods and findings of the research. Research integrity includes honesty, rigour, transparency, open communication, care and respect for all participants, and accountability. According to the ‘Concordat To Support Research Integrity‘, the core elements of research integrity are:

  1. Honesty in all aspects of research, including in the presentation of research goals, intentions and findings; in reporting on research methods and procedures; in gathering data; in using and acknowledging the work of other researchers; and in conveying valid interpretations and making justifiable claims based on research findings.
  2. Rigour, in line with prevailing disciplinary norms and standards, and in performing research and using appropriate methods; in adhering to an agreed protocol where appropriate; in drawing interpretations and conclusions from the research; and in communicating the results.
  3. Transparency and open communication in declaring potential competing interests in the reporting of research data collection methods; in the analysis and interpretation of data; in making research findings widely available, which includes publishing or otherwise sharing negative or null results to recognise their value as part of the research process; and in presenting the work to other researchers and to the public.
  4. Care and respect for all participants in research, and for the subjects, users and beneficiaries of research, including humans, animals, the environment and cultural objects. Those engaged with research must also show care and respect for the integrity of the research record.
  5. Accountability of funders, employers and researchers to collectively create a research environment in which individuals and organisations are empowered and enabled to own the research process. Those engaged with research must also ensure that individuals and organisations are held to account when behaviour falls short of the standards set by this concordat.

These points apply to all types and aspects of research and to all individuals involved in it. Obviously, they apply also to research of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). I will therefore briefly discuss each point in respect of SCAM research.

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Honesty in research is an important ethical prerequisite. In SCAM, we regularly see that the honesty seems to be in short supply. There are many ways in which lack of honesty shows itself. For me, the most impressive one is when SCAM researchers disclose – as they often do –  that their aim is to demostrate that their assumptions/theories/hypotheses are correct. In such cases, they abuse the tools of science which are not for confirming hypotheses but for testing, i.e. trying to falsifying them. This blog offers plenty of examples for this phenomenon (e.g. here or here)

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The lack of rigor in much of SCAM research is legend and has become a constant theme on this blog. How often have we seen useless and unnecessary observational studies or pilot studies on subjects where controlled trials already exist? How often have we lamented over misinterpretation of a study’s findings? How often have we reported research that was ill-conceived from the outset, unable to answer any meaningful research question? My all time favourite examples of drawing a wrong conclusions are from the area of homeopathy, e.g. here and here.

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Much of SCAM research is being conducted by SCAM enthusiasts who have no qualitification or experience in research or science. Inevitably, this must lead to bias. Just think of the fact that some countries, e.g. China, or some SCAM journals, or some SCAM researchers (e.g. THE ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE HALL OF FAME) publish as good as no negative findings

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Lack of respect for research subjects has many guises. For instance, if clinical trials are being conducted of treatments that are utterly implausible. This, in my view, constitutes an abuse of the willingness of volunteers to make a contribution to research. Another example is the incessant flow of untrustworthy research by SCAM enthusiasts which eventually can only erode the public’s trust in research and is bound to render the essential cooperation of researchers and volunteers more and more problematic.

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When I think of accountability, I think yet again of the men and women in my ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE HALL OF FAME. As any of its members ever been held accountable for misleading the public through their pseudo-research? Sadly, the answer, as far as I know, is NO.

2 Responses to Research integrity: a difficult issue, particularly in so-called alternative medicine

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