Sick Kids’ announcement follows a similar cases in the U.S. There, a research misconduct scandal recently prompted the resignation of Dr. Jose Baselga, the former chief medical officer of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre in New York City, after a New York Times-ProPublica investigation found he failed to disclose payments from healthcare companies. Elsewhere, Ohio State University cancer scientist Ching-Shih Chen resigned after he was found to have falsified data.
The Star’s review of more than 1,400 papers co-written over 30 years by Koren, one of Canada’s most prolific scientific authors, reveals the inability — and unwillingness — of journals and research institutions to preserve theintegrity of the scientific record.
Several concerns about Koren’s research were identified in 2015 by a SickKids internal review. The hospital posted a summary of its findings on its website, and told the Star it sent a copy to the province’s medical watchdog, which is investigating Koren.
The Star’s investigation has found the system of medical publishing is one with little accountability, where the onus is on authors to voluntarily disclose conflicts of interest. Journals don’t vet these claims (or the authors who make them). Institutions have discretion to investigate allegations of misconduct as they see fit.
Corrections, if they happen at all, routinely take years to be published.
The Star’s findings are consistent with the systemic problems that have been identified by Retraction Watch, a pioneering organization with an online database of retractions and corrections.
Founded in 2010, the organization began collecting retractions, by searching journals online and in print, and, by the time the database went live in October 2018, it had amassed more than 18,000 retractions This made it the most extensive catalogue of such notices available, says the site’s co-founder, Ivan Oransky, a doctor, journalist and professor at New York University.
Despite the commonly held belief in the power of peer-review and the ability of academic publishing to root out cases of misconduct and fraud, Oransky describes “the vaunted self-correction mechanism of science” as one that is “held together by spit and bubble gum.”
From the institutions who rely on researchers to bring in grant money to the journals and authors whose reputations and careers are at stake, “at every stage the incentives are against doing the right thing,” he said.
“I don’t know if the barrel is totally rotten, but there are a lot more rotten apples in the barrel than people would like us to admit.”
Koren, who retired from SickKids in June 2015, has continued to publish since his departure. Neither he nor his lawyers responded to emails and phone calls seeking comment for this story.
Koren, who now lives in Israel, had been working as a senior researcher for Maccabi Health, a healthcare provider. In late October, Physicians for Human Rights Israel, a medical ethics’ watchdog in Israel, wrote to Maccabi Health with concerns that Maccabi may not know about Koren’s role in two SickKids controversies, including the Motherisk scandal. On Dec. 5, Maccabi, in a letter obtained by the Star, wrote back saying it had appointed a committee to “examine the role of Professor Koren in these incidents.”
Israel Hayom, a national newspaper, reported on Dec. 18, that Maccabi Health said Koren will be on leave until the end of the investigation. Haaretz, another Israeli newspaper reported that day that Koren defended the Motherisk lab by saying it was clinical, not forensic, and “won praise.” He said, according to the newspaper, that claims of biased or misleading research were outright libel.
SickKids said last week that it is “regrettable” that an audit of Koren’s work had not been conducted sooner and that there should have been “closer oversight of his disclosure and publication practices.”
In the 30 years he spent at the helm of Motherisk, Koren’s staggering publication record helped make the program the foremost source of advice for generations of pregnant women and their doctors. He held editorial positions at more than 15 academic journals, attracted more than $29 million in grants from public and private sources, won prestigious awards and supervised up to a dozen graduate students per year, the Star found.
The institutions and journals that benefited now face possible problems in hundreds of papers in a case that reveals problems ailing the system of academic publishing, and provides a prescription for much-needed improvement.