July 5, 2022

Stopping research cheats

With high-profile scandals like the reports fabricated by stem cell scientist Hwang Woo-suk in mind, everyone is concerned with a growing incidence of scientific misconduct. But how to stop it is puzzling. The first world conference on research integrity, held in Lisbon in September, presented a daunting picture. While out-and-out fraud seems to be rare, pushing the envelope has become easier.

“People sort of touching up their gels — things like that are a lot easier now than it used to be,” Tim Hunt of Cancer Research UK told the journal Cell. “There’s a bell curve with absolutely exemplary practice at one end and misconduct at the other and a big bell in the middle representing degrees of questionable practice. How do we address that? How do we ensure that people don’t slide down one side of the bell into the misconduct side?”

One response to the problem is increased ethical training for young scientists. But a study by Melissa Anderson, of the University of Minnesota, suggests that this could sometimes be worse than useless. Formal instruction, it turns out, significantly increases the odds of poor choices when collecting and analysing data, dealing with confidential information or allowing inappropriate influence by funding organisations. It is also correlated with a higher probability of not giving proper credit to others.

How about mentoring? Mentoring in research and ethics decreases the likelihood of misconduct, but advice on how to survive in the field and use funds actually increases it. Of the younger scientists in Dr Anderson’s survey, biologists were among the least likely to be mentored in ethics — they received more advice about getting funding.

Whatever the reason, scientists carry the ethical standards they learned elsewhere into their labs. “Surveys consistently show that the incidence of cheating in high school and college is very high, well over 50%, and it’s unreasonable to expect that these people who were cheating in college will never cheat again,” David Resnik, a bioethicist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, in North Carolina, told Cell. “It’s not surprising that you find fraud in science — scientists are people too – but we tend to hold scientists up on a pedestal.”