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Many Researchers Break the Rules: Study

April 15, 2006

Pressures in and outside lab may be to blame, experts say

If you think the average scientist ain’t misbehavin’, think again.

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 more scientists?”

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, Vioxx.

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 to produce.

“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.

Others agreed.

“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 really disturbing.”

“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?”

More information

For more on ethics in research, head to Citizens for Responsible Care and Research.




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