CONCLUSIONS AND COMMENTS[index]
The Academy's trifurcation of misconduct differs substantially from the way scientific misconduct is defined by governmental agencies such as the NIH and the National Science Foundation (See Part 1 of this series on Scientific Misconduct in the December, 1991 issue of EMB Magazine at page 69). Specifically, the COSEPUP definition excludes "other serious deviation from accepted research practices" from scientific misconduct. We believe this is a mistake which, if generally adopted, will make self-governance of the research profession impossible.
Previously, we adopted the point of view that any misconduct involving laboratory facilities or personnel has a potentially substantial effect on science and research and is therefore research misconduct (See Part 4 of this series on Scientific Misconduct in the September, 1991 issue of EMB Magazine at page 77). As a practical matter, the proposition that lying, cheating, stealing, etc. are practiced selectively, anywhere else, but not in proposing, performing or reporting research, is contrary to human experience. Thus, we believe that the human propensity to act outside norms of conduct tends to be a general characteristic rather than a selected practice for isolated settings. In short, liars lie and cheaters cheat.
As a result, we find no comfort in the fact that the Swazey survey found less direct knowledge reported for FFP than what COSEPUP calls "questionable research practices" and "other misconduct." We believe COSEPUP is correct that scientists consider FFP the cardinal sins of science, and we note that human beings take fewer pains to hide minor infractions (or their inaction after suspecting them) than major ones. Accordingly, it would not be remarkable if scientists took more pain to conceal from their peers what their peers consider "cardinal sins." Thus, in our view, the finding that there is less direct knowledge of FFP reflects more concealment, rather than a lower incidence of such behavior. In other words, the FFP iceberg is floating in an ocean of much lower salinity, its tip covered with varmints.
As discussed earlier in this series, self-governance creates professional responsibility for research professionals to monitor and sanction misconduct within the research profession (See especially Parts 4 and 5 of this series on Scientific Misconduct in the September and December, 1992 issues of EMB Magazine). Each researcher who has direct knowledge of misconduct in the laboratory shares responsibility for the misconduct if they fail to report it. Who fails to discharge this relatively simple obligation to his or her research profession? Clearly, not just the folks who admit to knowing about scientific misconduct in a survey and do nothing about it. Who else?
According to Congressman Dingell's remarks in the Shattuck Lecture, a recent survey of 20 leading scientists by his subcommittee revealed that almost all had witnessed misconduct, whistleblowers harassed, or other matters generating concern, yet none were willing to testify, write open letters, or even have their names used publicly, for fear of retaliation.
In other words, probably every faculty-level scientist conducting sponsored research at a major institution who has not been blacklisted as a whistleblower has had good reason to suspect misconduct by at least one of his or her peers and failed to do anything about it. Beginning in 1964, one of the authors (CFW) has held engineering and science faculty positions ranging from Assistant Professor of Chemistry to Professor of Chemical Engineering while conducting NSF- and NIH-sponsored research at three leading universities. Based on that experience, it is inconceivable that an individual could conduct sponsored research at a major university in the United States for very long and not have direct knowledge of scientific misconduct by another member of the faculty.
On this basis, a reasonable interpretation of the Swazey survey is that faculty who say they have knowledge of misconduct represent the percent of decent folk who recognize that a problem in academic research exists and want to do something about it. Apparently, however, most are not sufficiently motivated to become whistleblowers.
The Swazey article clearly suggests that the research profession will have neither whistleblowers nor meaningful self-governance of research misconduct until it agrees upon a code of professional conduct that includes all relevant activities of the profession, including a rule protecting members of the profession who disclose misconduct. The alternative is to abandon self-governance, and let outsiders control misconduct for us. If that happens, be prepared, on the one hand, for name-calling witchhunts and investigations that would make Draco and McCarthy envious, and, on the other hand, either overreaction by the legal system that may protect the guilty along with the innocent, or worse yet, no reaction at all.
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