If you think the average scientist ain't misbehavin',
A new study has found that
scientific misbehavior appears to be endemic and
is occurring far more often than just the more egregious,
media-hyped examples, such as faking research.
"Not all scientific misconduct is these gross
violations like falsifications, plagiarism and fabrication,"
said study lead author Raymond De Vries, an associate
professor of medical education and a member of the
Bioethics Program at the University of Michigan
in Ann Arbor.
"A lot of us aren't making up data and stealing
data," he said. However, he believes that intense
competition within the sciences is having a negative
effect on researchers.
"Many scientists are worrying more about little
things that go along with working in the lab,"
De Vries said, "like how do you interpret your
data, how do you stick with the increasing number
of rules in science, how do you deal with the increasingly
intense competition for rewards that are staying
more or less the same as we're producing more and
De Vries is lead author of the research that appears
in the premier issue of the Journal of Empirical
Research on Human Research Ethics. A second
paper in the same journal, for which De Vries is
senior author, looked at "organizational justice."
It found that scientists who believe they are being
treated unfairly are more likely to behave in ways
that push the envelope of integrity.
But it's been flagrant instances of falsification
and plagiarism that have made headlines recently.
The downward tailspin in science gathered speed
early this year, when it was revealed that two studies
detailing South Korean researcher Hwang Woo-suk's
supposed "breakthroughs" with stem cell
cloning were faked.
That was preceded by the revelation in December
that Merck employees had withheld critical data
about heart attacks in a landmark trial involving
the now-banned cox-2 inhibitor,
And, most recently, a paper that first appeared
last October showing that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory
drugs (NSAIDs) reduced
the risk of oral cancer, turned out to be completely
false. The database of 908 study participants itself
was fabricated, with 250 of the people sharing the
same birth date. The author of that study, Dr. Jon
Sudbo, of the Norwegian Radium Hospital in Oslo,
Norway, has now also confessed to faking data for
mouth-cancer studies published in 2004 and 2005.
But what of indiscretions occurring outside of
the media spotlight?
For this study, De Vries and his colleagues conducted
six focus groups with a total of 51 researchers
culled from top U.S. research universities.
Participants said they were more concerned with
mundane, everyday problems that seemed to fall into
four categories: the meaning of data, the rules
of science, life with colleagues and the pressure
"After the focus groups, we felt like we had
been at a confessional," De Vries remarked.
"We didn't intend this, but the focus groups
became a place where people could unburden themselves."
One young scientist up for her master's degree
was advised by an external examiner to "chop
off the last two data points."
Another participant told of a famous scientist
who wrote unflattering letters of recommendation
for students he liked (so they would never leave
his lab) and accolades for students he hated (so
someone else would hire them).
Other problems mentioned included manipulation
of the peer review system, exploitation of junior
colleagues, unreported conflicts of interest, stealing
of ideas and withholding of data.
In the second study, a national sample of 4,367
National Institutes of Health-funded
scientists were asked to review a list of 33 behaviors
identified in the focus groups and indicate if they
had engaged in any of the behaviors, or if they
had seen another scientist engage in them during
the past three years. Results of the national survey
corresponded well with the focus group results,
the authors stated.
According to De Vries, it's the organizational
culture, not individual foibles, that are ultimately
responsible for these transgressions.
"One of the issues we're going to have to
address is institutional culture, which makes it
easier for such behavior," said Adil Shamoo,
professor of biochemistry and bioethics at the University
of Maryland, Baltimore and editor-in-chief of the
journal Accountability in Research. "Institutions
haven't really dealt with these issues in a forthright
manner. They're closing their eyes to it, or only
opening them slightly."
"Our top research institutions brag about
the amount of money they bring in, not the amount
of new knowledge," Shamoo said. "It's
"What can we do institutionally to help reduce
both the misdemeanors and the temptation to cross
lines and how do we inculcate virtue in practitioners?"
added David Magnus, associate professor of pediatrics
and director of the Stanford Center for Biomedical
Ethics. "How do we make sure ethics is integrated
into the practice of science?"