By David Tuller, DrPH
In 2019, Professor Esther Crawley, Bristol University’s methodologically and ethically challenged grant magnet, was asked to make corrections to the ethics statements in eleven of her papers after a joint report from the Health Research Authority (HRA) and her own institution found deficiencies in her work. (My first post on this matter was four years ago.)
I have been trying to find out why Professor Esther Crawley did not ensure that corrections were made in seven of the eleven papers. Earlier this week, I posted the most recent letter I received from the HRA, the agency that oversees research ethics in the UK. In the letter, the HRA noted that Bristol claimed Professor Crawley had sent letters to all of the relevant journals, but that seven did not make the corrections, for unexplained reasons.
Unfortunately, Bristol was unable to provide the HRA with an iota of evidence of such correspondence. Curiouser and curiouser! Below is my response to the HRA regarding Bristol’s claim. I have posted this letter on Facebook, but I believe it is important to keep an archive of these exchanges in this venue as well.
I want to express my thanks for the HRA’s efforts to get to the bottom of this perplexing situation and rectify it. Frankly, I am troubled by what appears to be Bristol’s attempt to deflect any responsibility for these irregularities. According to Bristol, it is all the fault of the high-profile journals in which Professor Crawley’s work appeared. The implication is that these journals chose not to inform readers about important information regarding ethical aspects of the research they published. This explanation certainly strains credulity, and not just because the university is unable to provide any evidence of correspondence that would support these questionable claims.
Here are a few of the other reasons why it is hard to accept Bristol’s assertions at face value.
*Journals can certainly be incompetent, so perhaps, in some cases, the request to correct an ethics statement might be overlooked or otherwise fall through the cracks. But in seven out of eleven cases? While that is theoretically possible, it seems doubtful to me, especially absent any documentation of the veracity of Bristol’s statements.
*It is true, as you noted, that journals make their own decisions about corrections. But would serious journals really refuse to fix ethics statements when asked by the principal investigator on the basis of an authoritative report from the HRA and the investigator’s own academic institution? Again, that is theoretically possible, but I find it hard to fathom. If this is so, then the system for monitoring research ethics in the UK is far more broken than I have assumed.
*Three of the eleven papers were published in Archives of Disease in Childhood, a BMJ journal. One of these papers has been corrected; two have not. Presumably Professor Crawley would have informed the journal of all three required corrections at the same time. In that case, the argument being advanced is that Archives decided to correct only one paper and rejected corrections for the other two. Does this make sense to the HRA?
*If a journal ignored or rejected a request for a necessary correction, an investigator with a functioning ethical compass and an iota of integrity would have sought an intervention from the authorities that requested the change in the first place—in this case, the HRA and Bristol. Based on Bristol’s account, Professor Crawley took no such action but simply sent off her requests and then let the matter drop. If that’s what happened, her failure to pursue this matter to the fullest extent speaks volumes. It would seem she is indifferent as to whether or not readers are offered accurate information about her research.
This mess has harmed not only Professor Crawley’s reputation but Bristol’s and the HRA’s as well. Now Bristol has compounded the damage by throwing the journals under the bus and blaming them for everything.
I am glad the HRA has insisted that, going forward, Bristol should try to push through these corrections and obtain responses from any journals that refuse. Beyond fixing the problem, however, I believe further investigation into how this happened in the first place is warranted. Perhaps the HRA should invest the time to contact the journals, inform them of Bristol’s accusations of negligence and/or ineptitude, and seek their side of the matter.
Please keep me informed about further developments.
David Tuller, DrPH
Senior Fellow in Public Health and Journalism
Center for Global Public Health
School of Public Health
University of California, Berkeley