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Authorship, plagiarism and conflict of interest: views and practices from low/middle-income country health researchers
  1. Anke Rohwer1,
  2. Taryn Young1,2,
  3. Elizabeth Wager3,4,
  4. Paul Garner5
  1. 1 Centre for Evidence-based Health Care, Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Stellenbosch University, Cape Town, South Africa
  2. 2 Cochrane South Africa, South African Medical Research Council, Cape Town, South Africa
  3. 3 Sideview, Princes Risborough, UK
  4. 4 School of Medicine, University of Split, Split, Croatia
  5. 5 Department of Clinical Sciences, Centre for Evidence Synthesis in Global Health, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, Liverpool, UK
  1. Correspondence to Ms Anke Rohwer; arohwer{at}sun.ac.za

Abstract

Objectives To document low/middle-income country (LMIC) health researchers’ views about authorship, redundant publication, plagiarism and conflicts of interest and how common poor practice was in their institutions.

Design We developed a questionnaire based on scenarios about authorship, redundant publication, plagiarism and conflicts of interest. We asked participants whether the described practices were acceptable and whether these behaviours were common at their institutions. We conducted in-depth interviews with respondents who agreed to be interviewed.

Participants We invited 607 corresponding authors of Cochrane reviews working in LMICs. From the 583 emails delivered, we obtained 199 responses (34%). We carried out in-depth interviews with 15 respondents.

Results Seventy-seven per cent reported that guest authorship occurred at their institution, 60% reported text recycling. For plagiarism, 12% of respondents reported that this occurred ‘occasionally’, and 24% ‘rarely’. Forty per cent indicated that their colleagues had not declared conflicts of interest in the past. Respondents generally recognised poor practice in scenarios but reported that they occurred at their institutions. Themes identified from in-depth interviews were (1) authorship rules are simple in theory, but not consistently applied; (2) academic status and power underpin behaviours; (3) institutions and culture fuel bad practices and (4) researchers are uncertain about what conflict of interests means and how this may influence research.

Conclusions LMIC researchers report that guest authorship is widely accepted and common. While respondents report that plagiarism and undeclared conflicts of interest are unacceptable in practice, they appear common. Determinants of poor practice relate to academic status and power, fuelled by institutional norms and culture.

  • research integrity
  • authorship
  • plagiarism
  • conflict of interest
  • survey
  • interviews

This is an Open Access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial (CC BY-NC 4.0) license, which permits others to distribute, remix, adapt, build upon this work non-commercially, and license their derivative works on different terms, provided the original work is properly cited and the use is non-commercial. See: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/

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Strengths and limitations of this study

  • We elucidated health researchers’ views about what was acceptable practice in relation to authorship, plagiarism and conflicts of interest through scenarios and asking how common poor practice was in their experience.

  • Respondents were part of Cochrane, which has strong ethical values and thus may increase their awareness of reporting guidelines.

  • Our response rate, while about average for such research, is a study limitation.

  • The study is one of the first to show that guest authorship is common practice in low/middle-income countries.

  • Despite good knowledge of best practice, institutional and academic power relationships and culture strongly influence these aspects of poor research practice.

Introduction

Intellectual honesty and personal responsibility for our actions is core to research integrity and accountability, alongside institutional culture and policies to help assure best practice. Research misconduct is a threat to all researchers as it puts the trustworthiness of science and researchers at risk. Blatant misconduct such as data fabrication, data falsification and plagiarism receives most attention, both in the media and within universities.1 However, less wholesale misrepresentation is much more common and may pose a threat to the integrity of research that is at least as great a threat as blatant misconduct.2–6 One aspect of this is poor reporting practice, which includes guest or ghost authorship, not declaring conflicts of interest and redundant publication (table 1). These reflect poor practice and are important basics of reporting science, and we thus chose them to be the subject of this research.

Table 1

Definitions of poor research reporting practices

The prevalence of research misconduct has been estimated in systematic reviews that examined misconduct in scientists across disciplines. Fanelli7 found that 1.97% (95% CI 0.89 to 4.45) of survey participants from 18 studies admitted to having fabricated or falsified data.7 Pupovac and Fanelli8 found that 1.7% (95% CI 1.2 to 2.4) of survey participants from 7 studies admitted to having committed plagiarism,8 while 29% (95% CI 24% to 35%) of survey participants from 14 studies in a review by Marušić and colleagues9 reported knowing of authorship problems.9 Yet there are few empirical studies on research practices in low/middle-income countries (LMICs). Only one of the systematic reviews mentioned above9 included studies conducted in LMICs — only 3 of the 14 studies that contributed data to the meta-analysis on authorship problems. Published literature focuses on high-income countries and research misconduct in terms of data falsification, data fabrication and plagiarism.7 10 In LMICs, research outputs are increasing, through local and international collaborations, but national policies on research integrity are lacking11 and the pressure to perform and live up to global standards is rising.12

Developing the science capacity in LMICs is important and is attracting increasing investment from national governments and donors. Assuring strong moral principles and honest practice is an important part of this development. We initiated research to describe health researchers’ perceptions of good and poor reporting practices and their perceptions about how common these are. Our objectives were to describe and analyse LMIC health researchers’ perceptions about best and actual practice with authorship, redundant publication, plagiarism and conflicts of interest through a survey and to explore influences on what people do in practice through in-depth interviews.

Methods

Study participants and design

Our target population was corresponding authors of Cochrane systematic reviews working in LMICs (countries defined by the World Bank13). We chose this group as they were identifiable, have all contributed to a published systematic review using international standards and represented a sample frame for active medical researchers. Cochrane has strong ethical principles, so it was thought likely this group may have awareness of best practice with authorship, plagiarism, redundant publication and conflicts of interest and thus provide a more sensitive and accurate estimate of practices within their institutions.

For the qualitative part of the study, we recognised that the researcher’s values and morals play a part in interpreting phenomena and how knowledge is created.14 15 The research team have diverse experience and skills, including nursing and clinical epidemiology (AR), infectious diseases (PG), publication ethics (EW) and public health (TY). They are all authors on Cochrane reviews, have editorial and training roles within Cochrane and publication ethics; two team members are based at an LMIC institution, and all members have extensive experience in working in LMIC settings. AR completed formal training in qualitative interview and data analysis methods and has some experience in doing qualitative research.

Data collection

We developed a questionnaire with questions based on nine scenarios (online supplementary file 1). The nine scenarios covered guest authorship, ghost authorship, plagiarism related to translation of a text and copying of an idea, redundant publication in terms of text recycling and declaration of conflicts of interest. Participants were asked whether they considered the practice portrayed in the scenario as acceptable, whether they, or someone they knew, had ever done this and whether the practice was common in their institution. Three illustrative scenarios and the response options are shown in table 2. The questionnaire was piloted with researchers not eligible for our study. We set up the survey using Google Forms and sent an invitation containing the link to the survey via email. In the email, we stated that participation in the survey was voluntary, that responses were anonymous and that the survey would take 15–20 min to complete. We surveyed all LMIC contact authors of active Cochrane reviews (published in the Cochrane Library in May 2015) and sent two reminders after the original invitation. The survey asked participants if they were willing to take part in a follow-up interview and asked them to indicate this through a link separate from the online questionnaire to preserve anonymity. All respondents that provided contact details were contacted via email to set up a time for the interview that was convenient to them.

Supplementary file 1

Table 2

Examples of survey scenarios and accompanying questions 

We developed an interview guide for semistructured interviews (online supplementary file 2) aligned with our objectives and informed by the survey results. AR conducted all the interviews between October and December 2015. Interviews lasted 45–60 min and were conducted in person or by Skype or telephone. All interviews were recorded with a digital voice recorder and notes were taken during the interviews to provide a comprehensive data set.

Supplementary file 2

Data analysis

We dichotomised survey data by combining categories of potential answers and analysed it with SPSS V.24, using descriptive statistics for each scenario. We stratified results by region and compared results between regions using the chi-squared test.

We analysed interviews using the framework approach, which fits into the broader family of thematic analysis16 using transcriptions of the audio recordings. Three researchers (AR, TY and EW) independently coded one of the transcripts using an inductive method of coding. We compared and discussed our individual codes and developed a set of preliminary codes that could be applied to the other transcripts. We did not consider the set of codes to be exhaustive and continually added new codes until all transcripts were coded. One researcher (AR) coded all the subsequent transcripts using Atlas.ti software, V.7.5.17 We categorised the codes (see online supplementary file 3) and extracted illustrative quotations. Emerging themes were identified through discussions with the whole research team in an iterative process.

Supplementary file 3

Ethics

The Cochrane Steering Group approved the participation of authors. Participation in the survey was voluntary, and submitting a response was taken as informed consent. Anonymity was ensured, as participants were not required to provide their names or the names of their institutions. Respondents who indicated willingness to be interviewed signed an electronic consent form before the interview. The interview transcripts contained no names to ensure anonymity of interview responses.

Results

We sent 607 invitations to corresponding authors of Cochrane systematic reviews. Twenty-four were not delivered; for the remainder, the response rate was 34% (199/583), with one incomplete response that was omitted from the analysis. Similar numbers of respondents were obtained across Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, South and Southeast Asia and East Asia, with one-tenth from North Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe (table 3). We contacted all 28 respondents who provided their contact details, and 15 of these were available to be interviewed within the study period. The interview group comprised junior researchers (PhD students or those who had recently obtained their PhD; seven respondents) and senior researchers (professors who had supervised PhD students; eight respondents).

Table 3

Characteristics of survey respondents (n=199)

Survey responses

The responses are summarised in table 4. Online supplementary file 4 has a more detailed analysis.

Supplementary file 4

Table 4

Low/middle-income country researchers’ perceptions and awareness of occurrence of heath research reporting practies

For the scenario of guest authorship given to the head of department, one-third of the 198 respondents thought this was acceptable or did not matter (35%). For behaviour, 24% said they had done this, while 57% had not done this but were aware of others doing it; and 77% indicated that this happened at their institution.

Adding an expert in the field who had not contributed sufficiently was similarly regarded as acceptable by one-third, 21% had done this and 71% said it happened in their institution.

Omitting an author who has contributed substantially to the research was recognised as unacceptable (99%), yet 41% reported that it happened, but mainly ‘occasionally’ (14%) or ‘rarely’ (26%), while only 2% indicated that they had done this, 42% had not done it themselves but knew of other people doing it. Responses related to acknowledging rather than giving authorship to the biostatistician for assistance with data analysis were more mixed.

For redundant publication, 29% of respondents thought that text recycling was acceptable or did not matter. Eleven per cent admitted to having done this, while 60% indicated that it occurred in their institution ‘occasionally’ (25%) or ‘rarely’ (26%).

For plagiarism, almost all the respondents (96%) thought that it was unacceptable to translate a text from another language without acknowledging the original source. Only 2% indicated that they had done this, but 37% of respondents indicated that they had not done this but knew of someone who had. Respondents thought that this practice occurred at their institution ‘occasionally’ (12%) or ‘rarely’ (24%).

Copying an idea without acknowledging the original source was reported as unacceptable by 90% of respondents. Only 3% indicated that they had done this themselves, but 43% indicated that they knew of others who had done this. Respondents said that this occurred at their institution ‘occasionally’ (12%) or ‘rarely’ (30%).

Most respondents (87%) thought that failure to disclose a financial reimbursement from a company involved in a research project was unacceptable. Five respondents indicated that they had done this themselves (3%), yet 43% of respondents knew someone who had not declared known conflicts of interests. Forty per cent of respondents said that it happened at their institution ‘occasionally’ (15%) or ‘rarely’ (24%).

Most respondents (76%) thought that it was unacceptable for an author not to declare a spouse’s link to a company involved in a research project. Three respondents indicated that they had not declared this in the past, but 29% knew someone who had not declared this, while 28% said that this practice occurred at their institution ‘occasionally’ (7%) or ‘rarely’ (22%).

We explored if there were obvious differences between regions (online supplementary file 5). We found that two-thirds (67%) of respondents from East Asia thought that adding a head of department who had not contributed significantly to the paper was acceptable or did not matter, whereas most respondents (61%–87%) from other regions thought that this practice was unacceptable. All respondents (100%) from East Asia indicated that this happened at their institution.

Supplementary file 5

Interviews

Authorship was a uniform concern across all the people interviewed. People reported adding authors who had not contributed substantially to the research, omitting authors who had contributed substantially and conflicts about the order of authors. Interviewees reported they knew about plagiarism by colleagues and in their institution. At risk were students and junior researchers whose first language was not English who published the same material in different languages. Others reported not publishing results that did not show any effect. Some interviewees also said that they knew of researchers who had fabricated data, manipulated data or engaged in data dredging. Almost all commented that misconduct was probably more prevalent than was officially acknowledged.

Our analysis identified four main themes. These are described below, with illustrative quotes in box.

Box

Selected quotations

Theme 1: Authorship rules are simple in theory, but not consistently applied

 “I think it is not fair. If you don’t work and you want to be an author. It’s not fair… I think that the author should be the person involved in the work, the person who thought about the work, elaborated on the work, the person who works with the main author. And the people who really wrote the work… And not the chief of a discipline for example. He is an author just because he is the chief and I think it is unfair.” (JNR_5) “You know, there is this thing about somebody… that is above you and that you look up to and sometimes they will have told you that they are interested in that paper. So, if you don’t put their name there will be friction. It is going to be a serious issue. It happens.” (JNR _6) “I mean I generally use the medical editors’ guidelines, the requirements for authorship, but it is clearly not being followed by most people.” (SNR_5) “So, he did it [adding an author] out of good intent that he is helping a colleague, and what goes around, comes around. One day, I will be in need for this and he will help me, the idea of sharing and caring.” (SNR_8)

Theme 2: Academic status and power underpin behaviours

 “They have their names on the publication, otherwise there is no publication. Otherwise they do not give us the degree. They are actually part of the jury.” (JNR_5) “The senior author, the professor, took over first authorship and he knew the paper was actually accepted in a high impact publication. And it has gotten many citations. But it was not the senior author, the first author who did the work. He just came in on the last minute and said I’m going to be first author.” (JNR_7) “So, what they care about is not the research, but the publication.” (JNR_4) “I was frustrated. I felt betrayed. I felt cheated out of my efforts and it was more like a failed expectation.” (SNR_4) “I think largely it is a power thing. You know, once you got some you want more… and status. I think that is absolutely huge. I don’t know that it is personal money, personal financial interest as much as professional and as I say, brining money for one’s programme. So, it does not really matter if we fudge some of these results, but we will get more money and can do a bigger, better study next time.” (SNR_5)

Theme 3: Institutions and culture fuel bad practices

 “Especially before promotions and appraisal. Some people are desperate to have the requisite number of papers so they are willing to have their name on just any paper.” (JNR_3) “They have to choose a quick way to publish your paper and they also know that nobody will… use their results, especially if they publish it under general journals…” (JNR_4) “There is some overemphasis on promotions rather than getting appraised based on what impact say the quality of the research and impact of the research.” (SNR_1) “I suspect that people stay in their rooms and cook up data and especially the ones that are smart.” (SNR_2) “We have to repeat this message over and over again, so that maybe at the end of the day, one day we reach the critical mass where we can change that.” (SNR_8) “I don’t think we have got a guideline on that. I suppose I would have to write it if there was one.” (SNR_7) “Clear leadership from the top in the form of showing a good example is key because that creates a culture in the younger generation of researchers.” (JNR_2) “I’m very lucky to have been… developed as a young researcher in this specific environment… with my bosses and supervisors because they have… helped me to realise, you know, what is right and wrong so… they are good role models. But everyone is definitely not that lucky to work in the environment that I work in.” (JNR_1)

Theme 4: Researchers are uncertain about what conflict of interests means and how this may influence research

 “Well, I know, you know in those publications there’s only the section for you to declare if there’s any conflict of interest but no, they don’t, people just say no, no, no so there’s no way you can tell if the person does or does not have [conflicts of interest].” (JNR_6) “I just report the evidence as it is so not declaring that my husband works for a… company and we have potential conflict of interest, I fail to understand how that can be a conflict of interest if his work did not really affect… the findings of the review…” (JNR_7) “We all actually have conflict of interest and in some ways, it starts getting a bit ridiculous because you are trying to think back to, I mean how far do you go? If a rep has given you a pen at a conference, do you then have a conflict of interest if you are dealing with their product? I am not really sure.” (SNR_5) “I don’t know if this is sufficient in the end— you can say “Yes, I am employed by [a drug company]” but and then what? And then? I don’t know if this is sufficient? Because in the end you are saying yes, I am defending the ideas of my employer and in the end you read the article and ask yourself, who is this that is speaking?” (SNR_6)

Theme 1: Authorship rules are simple in theory, but not consistently applied

Interviewees were mostly aware of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors criteria. Some reported diligent application of the criteria; others were clearly frustrated with their colleagues, as ‘it should be simple’ and described it as ‘not straightforward’ with ‘blurring of lines’ in defining contribution. Most were aware of authorship decisions in their institutions based on factors other than contribution. ‘We have a lot of issues on what we call ‘add my name’. It’s very popular.’

Adding authors at a late stage who had done little or nothing was common in all regions, for a variety of reasons: a ‘favour’ and loyalty towards colleagues, family and friends; as a means of rewarding research assistants; to make a publication look better; out of respect for a senior researcher; and in return for paying open access publication fees. Sometimes authors from different disciplines or non-academics were added. In contrast to this haphazard way of assigning authorship, other researchers felt they were expected to follow ‘unwritten rules’.

Theme 2: Academic status and power underpin behaviours

Senior and junior interviewees described the ‘power play’ between senior and junior researchers. Junior researchers were described as the ‘work horses’, who had to ‘abide’ by the ‘mandatory rules’ of their bosses to avoid conflict or a ‘change in attitude’ towards them. They found it ‘very difficult to fight senior professors’ who were described as ‘arrogant’ and ‘corrupt’. All those reporting this had personal stories. In many countries, junior researchers were obliged to add the names of heads of department, bosses or supervisors to their publications even when they did not contribute. Others reported that professors or supervisors expected to be first author on a publication that was based on a student’s dissertation or junior researchers’ work. Some respondents described cases where professors published students’ research without including them as authors and sometimes even without students knowing that their work had been published. Junior researchers were frustrated about these practices, which they viewed as unfair.

It seems that students and junior researchers may have no choice but to tolerate this manipulative behaviour to complete their degrees and advance their careers. Some interviewees who had experienced this spoke vehemently about how upset they were— and recounting their experiences evoked strong emotions: anger, betrayal, frustration and hurt. They also found it difficult to stand up against seniors in these situations. Their place in the hierarchy determined whether their voice was heard or not, and they were often ‘brushed off’ by more senior people. Interviewees were concerned that researchers, especially those who are ‘not in a position of power’, were unable to raise concerns or make anonymous remarks when they suspected misconduct.

The desire for academic status was reported as a big driver. Publications are the ‘bread and butter’ of researchers—more publications lead to promotions and more power. Interviewees felt that researchers often did not care about the research itself, but rather about the number of publications they had authored and the power that comes with publication. Academics are willing to do almost anything to be ‘recognised in the scientific community’, ‘associated with high-impact publications’ and ascend the institutional hierarchy. This behaviour was described as not being ‘in the best interest of the research… but certainly in the best interests of the researcher’.

Theme 3: Institutions and culture fuel bad practices

A recurrent theme was the ‘overemphasis’ on publications, particularly the quantity required for promotion, fuelling and encouraging a variety of forms of misconduct. Respondents were aware of researchers who submitted papers they had ‘photo-shopped’ to include their names and affiliations for promotion or ‘set up phony journals’ where they published a reworked version of somebody else’s paper. Another described clinicians and nurses publishing fabricated data in local journals. Although researchers were aware that this was unethical, they did not really care since papers published in these journals were known to be untrustworthy. Yet such publications counted towards promotion.

Interviewees also highlighted the lack of structures and systems to support and promote research integrity in their institutions such as research integrity offices, clear policies on research misconduct and channels for whistleblowing. Interviewees thought offenders should be punished appropriately, as this might deter poor practices. While most institutions had guidelines on plagiarism, use of text-matching software was directed towards students rather than academics. Institutional guidelines on good research reporting practices were either lacking or interviewees did not know where to find them.

In addition to flawed systems, an emerging theme was the culture within institutions. Interviewees noted the lack of research integrity champions within institutions. Interviewees, especially senior researchers, reported playing an important role in promoting research integrity in their institutions. However, they often felt like ‘lone voice(s) in the wilderness’ and lacked ‘the critical mass’ to change poor practices. Awareness about research integrity among other researchers was perceived as low. Leadership was reported as an essential factor in fostering a culture of research integrity. The lack of positive role models and mentors at institutions was raised as a concern, and respondents noted that having a good mentor was essential to learn ‘what is right and wrong’.

Theme 4: Researchers are uncertain about what conflict of interests means and how this may influence research

Respondents expressed various views on managing and disclosing conflicts of interest. Some believed that they would not be influenced—neither by commercial companies nor by personal relationships and would just report the evidence ‘as is’. Some believed that researchers should not refuse to work with commercial companies per se, as their expertise could help in the advancement of science. Key to both points of view was being transparent and declaring funding sources and links to commercial companies. A contrasting view was that links to commercial companies would always influence researchers on some level, even if this influence was very subtle. Some interviewees supported the idea that it was better to decline participation in a research project when there was a financial or academic conflict of interest.

Uncertainty around academic conflicts of interest was frequently raised. Examples of dilemmas included examining a thesis describing research that was similar to their own, including clinical experts who had received funding from pharmaceutical companies in systematic reviews and peer-reviewing papers of colleagues without being biased.

Interviewees also questioned the validity and adequacy of declaring conflicts of interest. Some thought that declaring conflicts of interest did not mean that the research was ‘free of any kind of internal, external manipulation’, while others believed that researchers generally declared that they did not have conflicts of interest, even if they did. Interviewees were also confused about declaring personal relationships with friends, family and spouses in a scientific paper. Most interviewees thought that there was inadequate guidance on what to declare and when to declare it.

Discussion

Our study was unusual, if not unique, in documenting the attitudes and experiences of health researchers from LMICs using a survey followed by in-depth interviews. Their responses highlight several areas of concern relating to poor and unacceptable research reporting practices.

We used a number of documented strategies to maximise our response rate, as a low response rate is a well-documented disadvantage and challenge of online surveys.18 19 We sent the survey to participants in individual and personalised emails, emphasising the value of participants’ knowledge and understanding of health research reporting practices, ensuring anonymity of responses and inviting them to engage in further discussions. We also sent two reminders.18–20 Despite our efforts, we only obtained a response rate of 34% for the survey. We were unable to contact non-respondents to obtain demographic information and reasons for not responding as anonymity of participants did not allow us to distinguish between respondents and non-respondents. We thus cannot rule out the possibility that non-respondents had different views from respondents.18 21 Only 28 survey respondents (14%) indicated that they were willing to participate in follow-up interviews, and 15 of those accepted the email invitation.

Authors of Cochrane reviews from LMICs perceived certain reporting practices as unacceptable but noted that these happened in their institutions. We found that guest authorship was widespread, plagiarism is a problem and there is a lack of awareness about conflicts of interest. There are several caveats that need to be considered when interpreting the results of surveys on research misconduct. It is almost impossible to eliminate social desirability bias, which refers to the tendency of survey participants to answer questions about their own values and behaviours in a way that is socially acceptable.22 23 Although having an anonymous, self-administered, online survey aims to reduce this bias, rates of self-reported misconduct might be underestimated.24 In addition, rates of reported misconduct in others might be overestimated, as participants from the same institution might refer to the same acts of misconduct. On the other hand, rates of misconduct in others might also be underestimated, as researchers might want to protect their colleagues and the reputation of their institution.7 In addition, the survey wording might have affected participants’ understanding and interpretation of the practices described. However, we aimed to standardise understanding of practices by using scenarios that portrayed certain irresponsible practices. We chose scenarios that included nuanced decisions but still had fairly clear correct answers and designed them to elicit responses that dichotomise these as right or wrong. However, we could not measure ‘overall’ knowledge and behaviour in relation to all aspects of authorship practices, plagiarism, redundant publication and conflicts of interest, so the findings should be interpreted within the specific focus and examples of research reporting we examined.

The in-depth interviews suggested that the institutions, their hierarchy and culture tended to encourage poor practice. Although our sample was small and self-selected, participants were very aware of what was happening at their institution and generally addressed the same problems. However, generalisability of our results is limited and results have to be interpreted with caution. We identified Cochrane authors as a group of researchers based in academic institutions in LMICs, who had contact with an international collaboration that promotes good scientific and reporting practice. While this restricted the size of the sample, it provided an identified sampling frame and respondents with some awareness of the aspects of research integrity that we were investigating.25 Survey and interview participants were from various LMICs and included junior as well as senior researchers. We considered the possible biases such a sample might entail, since Cochrane has strong ethical principles, and the critical appraisal of research papers for systematic reviews is likely to make Cochrane authors aware of authorship issues, redundant publication, plagiarism and conflicts of interest. This awareness means that their responses are probably reasonably accurate. For those interviewed, it may be that they have volunteered because of frustration with the system they are working in or because they were upset about injustice that they had experienced themselves, but the analysis seemed to ring true and was remarkably consistent between those interviewed. However, we accept that using this sampling frame may have limited the representativeness of our respondents and that Cochrane authors may have greater understanding of publication ethics than other researchers.

Of all the irresponsible practices explored, perceptions and occurrence of guest authorship stood out. In light of the availability of international guidelines26 and journal requirements on contributions of authors, this result is striking, although not unexpected when considering results of other studies. A meta-analysis on the misuse of authorship9 found a self-reported prevalence of 55% (95% CI 45% to 64%) among health researchers from countries outside of the USA and UK, including South Africa, India and Bangladesh. A survey conducted among medical professionals in India27 found a high prevalence of guest authorship (65%; 101/155), while in a study conducted in Nigeria, 36% (47/133) of participating health professionals indicated that they had encountered disagreements about authorship.28 In our survey, 77% of respondents indicated that guest authorship occurred at their institutions.

For plagiarism, few of our respondents admitted to having translated a text or copied an idea without acknowledgement of the original source. However, they were aware of this happening in their institutions. Other studies from LMICs report much higher levels of self-reported plagiarism; 5% (n=132) among Nigerian dental researchers,29 9% (n=130) among Nigerian health researchers28 and 73% (n=82) among medical faculty members in Pakistan.30 Our findings are similar to self-reported rates of plagiarism in high-income countries as found in a systematic review8 that reported a pooled estimate of 1.7% (95% CI 1.2 to 2.4) of survey participants admitting to any type of plagiarism. The pooled estimate for observed plagiarism in colleagues was 29.6% (95% CI 17.4 to 45.5), which is lower than our estimates of 37% and 43%. However, our scenarios referred only to translation of text and copying of an idea and not to simply copying of text, which is generally a more common understanding of plagiarism.

Our findings show that the desire for power and academic status and institutional systems and academic culture greatly influence research integrity. These findings are in line with other international publications31–33 and suggest that factors driving research misconduct are similar across low-income, middle-income and high-income countries. Of concern is the lack of mentors and role models for junior researchers. Indeed, mentoring has been shown to positively influence research career development, productivity and success and plays an important role in preventing misconduct.32 34 Junior researchers appear to know what good practices are but are discouraged from following these by seniors.

The impact of financial conflicts of interest on study results and reported conclusions is well recognised.35 36 More recently, the importance of considering non-financial conflicts of interest has been highlighted.37–39 We found that non-financial conflicts of interest were poorly understood and that participants were reluctant to report them. A recent study found that authors of systematic reviews reported non-financial conflicts of interests less frequently than financial conflicts of interests.40 Our study participants felt that there was inadequate guidance on declaring financial and non-financial conflicts of interest and that a universal framework would be helpful. This need for standardised methods of reporting conflicts of interest has been recognised,38 40–42 and some approaches proposed.38 40 41 However, a universal system has not been realised and the onus is on journals and institutions to provide clear policies and guidelines on the transparent reporting of conflicts of interests.

There are few published studies on irresponsible research practices among health researchers from LMICs.10 To our knowledge, this is the first survey followed up with in-depth interviews that includes participants from several LMICs. The use of an online survey and in-depth interviews allowed us to gather rich data that supplemented our quantitative findings. This work highlights researcher concerns about several aspects of poor reporting practice in LMICs and the belief that such practices are common in some institutions. In particular, the researchers highlighted guest authorship as something that troubled them. Limited institutional processes and systems, lack of role models and emphasising promotions and publications are important factors thought to influence research integrity in LMICs.

Future research in LMICs should explore ways to promote research integrity at various levels within institutions.

Acknowledgments

We thank Mrs Tonya Esterhuizen, Centre for Evidence-based Health Care, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Stellenbosch University, for assisting with data analysis.

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  40. 40.
  41. 41.
  42. 42.
View Abstract

Footnotes

  • Contributors All authors contributed to the design of the study. AR collected and analysed data, with input from EW, TY and PG. AR drafted the manuscript. PG, TY and EW critically engaged with the manuscript and provided input. All authors have approved the final manuscript.

  • Funding All authors are supported by the Effective Health Care Research Consortium. This Consortium is funded by UK aid from the UK Government for the benefit of developing countries (grant: 5242).

  • Disclaimer The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect UK government policy.

  • Competing interests All authors have completed the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors uniform disclosure form at www.icmje.org/coi_disclosure.pdf and declare: financial support from the Effective Health Care Research Consortium. EW is a self-employed consultant and received personal fees for training related to publication ethics outside of the study. All authors are involved with Cochrane, and EW is the author of a Cochrane systematic review on interventions to promote research integrity.

  • Ethics approval Stellenbosch University Health Research Ethics Committee (N14/12/158).

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data sharing statement Unpublished data from the survey can be obtained upon request from AR.

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