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Scientific Misconduct: Part 5 - Making Scientific Self-Regulation Work (cont'd)

Professional Self-regulation[index]

The whole concept of professional misconduct is tied to the assumption that there is a professional norm from which the misconduct deviates. Physicians and lawyers in every state define their professional responsibilities in public, written standards. In most states, these standards for professional responsibility are promulgated as statutes applicable to the entire profession. Failure to follow these standards may be cause for reprimand, censure, suspension, or, in cases of the most serious deviations, permanent loss of license.

The reason is the enormously important and powerful role of lawyers and physicians in our egalitarian society. Plumbers are licensed, but seldom lose their licenses for misconduct because they do not occupy a particularly powerful role. On the other hand, lawyers and physicians, because of the importance of their role, must be subject to closer scrutiny.

Accordingly, rather than abdicate to outsiders, lawyers and physicians established their codes of professional responsibility and took on the responsibility of policing themselves. While not always done to the satisfaction of others, self-policing by lawyers and physicians has been sufficient in most jurisdictions to ward off efforts by those outside the profession to take control.

What about researcher? Are they important or powerful enough to warrant licensing and special scrutiny? Should they have professional responsibilities? Are they up to policing themselves?

Developments in science, technology and medicine during the last half of the twentieth century substantially changed the role of researchers. Today, researcher can change the course of human destiny--for better or worse. Today their importance and power requires closer scrutiny.

So far, however, there has been little effort by researchers to establish basic norms for their professional activities. Many researchers would decry conducting research on atomic weapons under a stadium in a populated metropolitan area; others apparently think nothing of doing so. Some find experiments using cross-species implants into humans irresponsible; others go ahead as though there was no concern. So far, researchers have not established the norm for their professional responsibilities to society.

Some researchers adopt the elitist view that having no norm to conform to is his or her just due. In this view, a special place of trust in society follows from the alleged expertise of the well-trained research professional. No doubt, elitists come to believe their own propaganda, but it doesn't play well in Peoria anymore, and with good reason. "Trust me!" has become a way failures buy time to preserve their status quo. As the frailties of mankind's aborting technocracy plainly shows, researchers cannot even foresee what new technological "fix" will be required by their most recent advancement.

More importantly, to the outsider, having no norm is merely a self-serving ploy to avoid accountability. Obviously, where there is no norm, "misconduct" is ill-defined behavior. Equally obvious is the fact that we live in a society that prides itself in requiring fair play by its government. However, objections to NSF and NIH definitions of misconduct in research on the basis that it cannot be defined fairly and is therefore too vague are inconsistent in a profession that refuses to establish the very norms that would remove ambiguity.

Both NSF and NIH define misconduct in terms of practices that deviate substantially from commonly accepted research practices. Since there is no doubt that control of misconduct in research is now a part of life, it behooves researchers to establish norms for commonly accepted practices during the conduct of research, for reporting results from research, and for proposing future research activities. Failure to do so will provide each individual who happens to be empowered to pass judgment on research conduct with carte blanche discretion to find misconduct or not, depending on the individual's view of the world of research.

Next - The Failure of Physician Self-regulation
Previous - Introduction


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