Science: Scientists need to learn the ethics of science

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The Independent Culture
WHY IS fraud in science receiving so much attention?

I am not alone in having published results that later turned out to be wrong. It happens all the time, not only among lowly biologists but even among the high priests of particle physics. It is in the very nature of science that if there is error, it is corrected by the community. Any paper that makes a significant contribution will be checked by others when they make use of the results, and it is rare in the extreme for any one set of results to dominate a field.

Science progresses slowly by a remodelling of knowledge. While error can be disruptive in the short run, in the long term it is irrelevant; more than a million articles are published in scientific journals each year, but many are never quoted again and very few have a lifetime of more than 10 years in which they are repeatedly referred to.

While it is the ultimate corruption of the scientific endeavour to fabricate results, the effect on the progress of science is much less serious than might be thought - but it does undermine public confidence.

The current intense concerns about fraud come from Germany, where a young research worker has exposed one of the biggest cases in Europe. Germany had apparently thought it was immune from what it saw as an American scourge, because the incentive in the US to publish papers in order to advance your career is so strong.

The case involved two cancer research workers who had published widely, but 47 of their papers were under suspicion.

It is greatly to the credit of the young scientist that he exposed the fraud. It is usually the young who spot it - they are working at the bench and see what is recorded and published - but it can be difficult to point a finger at your superiors, in science or any other field.

In this case the young man was helped by his former supervisor, at another institute. Should all institutes have some sort of ombudsman to whom young workers can go?

Sometimes there is the conviction that the scientist knows the right result, and although the results do not fit, they eventually will. The first report that mice had been cloned by the transfer of nuclei from embryonic cells was treated with suspicion when it was published, as long ago as 1981, and was then exposed by a student in the laboratory as a fraud. The scientist lost his job , but in the very same issue of Nature that carries a detailed analysis of fraud he writes a letter claiming that, since mice have recently been cloned, his original report was true.

Conviction can distort thinking. Indeed in many scientific papers there is a temptation to massage the results, to put them in the best light and to exclude results that do not fit. A famous case is that of a scientist who earned a Nobel prize for his work on the charge on the electron - and when his laboratory notebooks were analysed it was found that he had discarded those results he did not like. He turned out to be right, but he was wrong not to report the anomalous results.

Another case involved a technician who, rather than tell his demanding boss that the cells he was culturing had stopped growing, renewed the cultures each time and so encouraged to the false idea, widely propagated in the Fifties, that cells could multiply indefinitely. Many scientific groups are now rather large, more than 30 workers, and this can make it difficult for the head of the group to keep track. Leroy Hood, a leading American molecular biologist, has described the discovery of fraud in his laboratory as the most difficult experience of his career. The rationalisation given for one of those involved was that he knew the answer. Another said he took a short cut, as he did not want to run the control again.

In order to avoid such cases in future, Hood sits down and talks to those who have come to work with him and explains about the pressures to succeed and the temptations of fraud.

It seems a good way forward. Perhaps scientists need training in the ethics of science.

The writer is professor of biology as applied to medicine at University College London