Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Scientific Misconduct: Ill-Defined, Redefined

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Scientific Misconduct: Ill-Defined, Redefined

Article excerpt

Bureaucracies work most efficiently with matters that are well defined. Fail to compute your alternative minimum tax, and a bureaucracy will spring into action. Commit an act of scientific misconduct, however, and a bureaucracy tends to fibrillate.

Scientific misconduct tends to be a lot like pornography: people think they know it when they see it, but it is extremely difficult to define. Bureaucrats have a hard time deciding when misconduct has occurred and then proving it when they are convinced that it has. For example, after nearly a decade of investigations, appeals bodies tossed aside two controversial cases. The cases involved AIDS researcher Robert Gallo, who was accused of misusing a sample of the AIDS virus provided him by another researcher and immunologist Theresa Imanishi-Kari, a colleague of Nobel laureate David Baltimore, who was accused of fabricating data. Justice may have been served by these decisions, but they did not reflect well on the government's ability to deal with misconduct cases.

Of course, it's unfair to blame the federal bureaucrats alone. Few in the scientific establishment can be accused of doing a good job of dealing with scientific misconduct. But because federal money is involved, Congress has insisted that the government try to do better. To that end, as part of the 1993 National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act, Congress required the Secretary of Health to create a Commission on Research Integrity. That commission, chaired by reproductive biologist Kenneth Ryan at Harvard Medical School, proposed thirty-three improvements ("Integrity and Misconduct in Research, Report of die Commission on Research Integrity, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C., 1995). Secretary of Health Donna Shalala then asked her science policy advisor, William Raub, to make recommendations on how to implement the commission's recommendations. Raub made his recommendations on 14 June of this year.

The most significant - and most controversial - change the commission recommended was in the definition of scientific misconduct. At present, it is based on the three sins of falsification, fabrication, or plagiarism. The Ryan commission concluded that this did not go far enough in defining an unacceptable breach of professional ethics by scientists. For example, a scientist, who knowingly sabotaged another's work would not be guilty of misconduct under the current definition. In addition, a scientist could leave a collaborator's name off a paper despite his or her significant intellectual contribution without being guilty, of plagiarism. …

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