Due Process for Scientists

The Christian Science Monitor, September 12, 1991 | Go to article overview

Due Process for Scientists


IT'S time to take another look at scientific misconduct. Fraud and fakery have tarnished science's image. But in its zeal to police federally funded research and mollify congressional critics, the United States government has itself become a source of misconduct.

Accused criminals can confront witnesses and challenge evidence. Accused scientists enjoy no such "due process" unless they are actually in a court of law facing charges of legally defined fraud. In most misconduct cases, they are subject to a "star chamber" administrative process whose rules explicitly deny them the right to confront witnesses or examine in detail the evidence against them.

Furthermore, the "crime" of scientific misconduct is ill-defined. Guidelines issued in 1986 specified plagiarism, fakery, and false representation. In 1989, that definition was stretched to include the fussy category of "other practices that seriously deviate from those that are commonly accepted within the scientific community for proposing, conducting, or reporting research." Any error or sloppy work an investigator considers deviant thus becomes suspect.

Present practice would seem to deny ordinary civil rights. However, a federal judge in the western district of Wisconsin ruled last December that such rights are not involved because research grants "are not made for (a scientist's) benefit, but for the benefit of the general public."

The ruling added that a scientist's "ability to serve on committees, to review journal articles, to participate in peer review, to conduct his research without supervision or special reporting obligations is not a right that is protected by law. …

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