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

The Failure of Physician Self-regulation[index]

The medical profession provides a graphic example of the consequences of failed professional self-regulation. The professional codes that govern lawyers are detailed guides to behavior and are adopted as law in most states. This means that all lawyers in the state are governed by the same code. Moreover, since most state codes closely resemble the American Bar Association Model Code of Professional Responsibility, the codes are very consistent from state to state.

In contrast, medical codes of ethics tend to be short and vague. Few states incorporate the provisions of the codes into law, preferring instead to use statutory codes that ban various types of fraudulent behavior. Despite these perfunctory codes, legislatures are content to allow physicians to establish their own standards of behavior as long as physician behavior does not offend public sensibilities.

This covenant has broken down as regards physicians financial conflicts of interest. (Interestingly, researchers will likely find prosecutors much more interested in financial conflicts of interest than in manipulation of data and other laboratory misconduct. A scientist who could be characterized as improperly manipulating laboratory to increase the value of his illegally owned stock would, of course, be the best case of all for a publicity seeking prosecutor.) The federal government has adopted Draconian laws and regulations barring physicians from getting any financial benefits from the referral of patients whose care is paid for by the government.

Without reviewing the details of these laws, it should be noted that they outlaw many well-accepted and pervasive practices. As with the regulations governing scientific misconduct, the penalties include barring the miscreant from receiving further government funds. In addition, physicians may be fined thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars (the largest court-ordered fine has been $19 million) and send to jail. Unlike researchers, who are investigated by NSF administrators, physicians face justice department criminal prosecutors.

If researchers fail to police themselves to the satisfaction of the legislators who dispense federal funds, then they too should expect to face Draconian regulations enforced by prosecutors, not bureaucrats. The establishment of a code of professional responsibility for researchers is long overdue and would substantially enhance the stature of the profession.

Next - What Should A Researcher's Code of Responsibility Address?
Previous - Professional Self Regulation


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