Research Universities and Scientific Misconduct: History, Policies, and the Future

By Steneck, Nicholas H. | Journal of Higher Education, May-June 1994 | Go to article overview

Research Universities and Scientific Misconduct: History, Policies, and the Future


Steneck, Nicholas H., Journal of Higher Education


At the 1981 Congressional Hearings on Fraud in Biomedical Research, then Representative Albert Gore, Jr., asked Philip Felig, the senior mentor in the Vijay Soman case at Yale: "Is it your opinion that the inplace system of checks at Yale worked satisfactory?" Felig responded that it did not.

[W]e didn't know how to react. I didn't know how to react at that point, and obviously, we didn't react properly [(51) p. 104].

Yale was at the time no better or wrose off than other universities. Despite growing evidence of misconduct in science during the 1970s, as the decade of the 1980s began, the nation's research universities had not developed or even thought much about scientific misconduct policies. Today they have. In this article I briefly trace the events that have seen the nation's major research universities adopt scientific misconduct policies, describe in general terms the forms these policies have taken, and conclude with recommendations for the future. Overall, the story told is one of slow acceptance of responsibility for scientific misconduct on the part of universities, with the agenda for policy formation being set largely by outside forces and individuals.

1. A Decade of Response, 1981-- 1991

In retrospect, it now seems almost self-evident that scientific misconduct policies are not only a good idea but a necessity. As university after university learned in the 1970s and 1980s, cases involving scientific misconduct too often were not covered by the general rules governing academic conduct. Evidence is hard to collect. Experts are needed for investigations and adjudication. The standards for judging misconduct vary from field to field. Self-investigations raise conflicts of interest.

Though there is general agreement that the most extreme form of scientific misconduct -- fraud in research -- cannot be tolerated, detecting, proving, and adjudicating research fraud is a complex and difficult task. Having rules for proceeding and standards for judging in place is, if nothing else, a prudent step.

This is not the way most scientists and university policy makers saw this issue in the mid-1970s when William Summerline's "painted" mice were discovered by the press (22). That anyone in science would deliberately fake the results of an experiment shocked many researchers, prompting some to question their most cherished beliefs about the way science operates. The biologist Peter Medawar later observed that his own lack of moral courage overcame the skepticism that he should have exercised as a scientist when he first saw corneal grafts that Summerline alleged to have performed on a rabbit.

I could not believe that this rabbit had received a graft of any kind ... because the pattern of blood vessels in the ring around the cornea was in no way disturbed. Nevertheless I simply lacked the moral courage to say at the time that I thought we were the victims of a hoax or confidence trick [30, p. 6]. However, the quick and efficient way in which Summerline was caught also reinforced other cherished beliefs about science, particularly the belief in its ability to police and regulate itself. More than any other factor, the widespread belief that error and fraud could be detected and corrected by the scientific community explains why scientists and the policy makers they advised on university campuses felt and have continued to feel no pressing need to institute policies and procedures for dealing with scientific misconduct.

The belief in self-policing and self-regulation in science was not limited to scientists or university policy makers. In by far the best and most penetrating analysis of scientific misconduct written before the 1980s, sociologist Harriet Zuckerman carefully reviewed both historical and contemporary evidence for insights into the causes, extent, and consequences of scientific misconduct. She described, in detail that is still useful for policy making today, the complexities of the behaviors of scientists and of the established norms in science. …

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