Viewpoint: Should we assume most health research is untrustworthy or fraudulent until proven otherwise?

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Credit: Mark Airs/Alamy
Credit: Mark Airs/Alamy

Health research is based on trust. Health professionals and journal editors reading the results of a clinical trial assume that the trial happened and that the results were honestly reported. But about 20% of the time, said Ben Mol, professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at Monash Health, they would be wrong. 

As he described in a webinar [recently], Ian Roberts, professor of epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, began to have doubts about the honest reporting of trials after a colleague asked if he knew that his systematic review showing the mannitol halved death from head injury was based on trials that had never happened. He didn’t, but he set about investigating the trials and confirmed that they hadn’t ever happened. They all had a lead author who purported to come from an institution that didn’t exist and who killed himself a few years later. The trials were all published in prestigious neurosurgery journals and had multiple co-authors. 

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We have now reached a point where those doing systematic reviews must start by assuming that a study is fraudulent until they can have some evidence to the contrary. 

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