The first detailed survey of ethical conduct in science has revealed what many researchers have long known: Honesty is not always the chosen policy when publication is at stake.
The study, published in the Nov. 12 issue of American Scientist, showed that 43 percent of graduate students and 50 percent of faculty members interviewed have direct knowledge of ethical misconduct in research. Perhaps even more disturbing is the study's finding that while 94 percent of scientists endorsed a collective responsibility for the conduct of their co-workers, only 27 percent said they actually exercise this responsibility.
Cheating in science can take many forms. It may begin by failing to properly attribute previous work, by adding someone's name to a paper even though that person did not merit authorship or by using research funds for personal pleasure. Each time researchers bend the rules, it becomes that much easier for them or their peers to bend further then next time. Soon, "scientistis" may begin "cooking" their data, or altering results to fit an hypothesis. This self-perpetuating behavior is particularly dangerous in biomedical research where findings have direct implications for the health of all humans.
Should taxpayers money be used to fund this type of fraud? Changes to the health care system are drying up research funds as it is, and these funds should not be cut futher. But there needs to be some accountability for this money. Since the nature of research is to build and expand upon prior findings, money used to support continued research of a falsified report is wasted.
It should be noted that the recent study detailing the prevalence of cheating is itself not completely scientific because it only measure scientists' perceptions of misconduct rather than the actual incidents. Still, the implications for academia are grave. At a university such as Duke, where many undergraduates are employed as research and laboratory assistants, unethical behavior at one level breeds the same at all levels. If undergraduates are exposed to these practices early on, they may begin to "learn" that to get ahead in research, corners must be cut.
The competition for tenure and the other rewards that stem from successful research go a long way toward engendering misconduct. When one scientist sees a colleague cheating to get ahead, he or she may succumb to pressures just to keep up.
Science may have reached a point where to question past ethical violations would diminish the value of good research by damaging the field's public image. Thus does science find itself in a state of denial.
Clearly the examples must be set at the top. Duke, like all other universities, should enforce stricter regulation through institutional review boards, and the heads of laboratories must establish accepted standards of operation for all to follow. A university cannot provide a true education when dishonesty infiltrates its walls.
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