I’ve been flailing lately (most recently in this post) with the question of how to reconcile how science ought to be done with what actually happens. Amidst my flailing, regular commenter DrugMonkey has been doing what some might characterize as getting up in my grill. I’m inclined to view DrugMonkey’s comments as pushing me to be clearer and more focused in setting out and attacking the problem.
The messenger is irrelevant. This is not the problem. The problem is the message of the “scientific ethics course”. Nobody (or at least, very few people) start off in science because it is a great place to cheat, fake data, sit on papers to rush one’s own work out, etc. So most people know, at some level, what the ethical conduct is supposed to be. Therefore the “ethics” class which repeats “don’t cheat” ad nauseum loses the audience.
The real question is why do otherwise well meaning scientists start to slip down the slope that ends up with outright data faking and other bad behavior? And then continue to self-justify with all the the usual garbage?
It is quite simple. because cheating pays off in this biz and one’s chances of getting caught are minimal. Notice how the cheaters who actually get driven out of science seem to be the ones with a huge track record of multiple fakes? Notice how when a lab is caught pretty much dead to rights with fakery, they just get away with saying it was a “mistake” or blame it on some postdoc who cannot (conveniently) be located or vigorously protests the retraction?
Is this cynical? no this is realistic. Does it mean that everyone cheats? no, probably it is still just a minority but really who knows? much of modern bioscience is essentially unreplicable, in part because novelty is so revered. until we get to the point where rigorous, meticulous, internally consistent, replicable and incrementally advancing science is respected more than the current Science/Nature type of paper, all contingencies drive towards bad behavior rather than good behavior.
when ethics classes start to deal with the realities of life and career and the motivations and contingencies at work, well, then they will be relevant. it won’t matter who teaches them…
My first reaction to this comment was, “DrugMonkey’s preferred approach is how I actually teach my ethics course!” My considered reaction was, “It’s time to go right to the heart of the problem and lay it out so clearly that people can’t fool themselves about what’s at stake.”
Which brings us to something that will read a bit like a manifesto.
- All scientists appreciate the need for honesty in reporting scientific findings and the wrongness of fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism.
- Despite (1), a certain (alarming?) number of scientists nevertheless engage in fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism with some regularity.
- A certain (even larger?) number of scientists are aware of the scientists who engage in fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism.
- The known bad actors seem to get rewarded, rather than smacked down, for committing fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism.*
What is to be done?
Here are the responses that probably don’t do enough to change things:
- Reiterate to scientists (in some mandatory ethics training) that fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism are wrong. See assumption (1). The scientists know they’re wrong. Any scientists who don’t understand the centrality of honesty to the project they’re trying to accomplish as scientists — building an accurate and reliable body of knowledge — are unlikely to be persuaded by a further round of finger-wagging.
- Cut off funding to scientists. Scientists can run whatever kind of community of bad actors they want, but they get to do it on their own dime rather than the public’s. Surely this is an appealing response to those who value cutting government waste, but even the public might have need for some scientific knowledge. (It’s worth noting, though, that the use of public dollars to support scientists who commit fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism is the justification for funding agencies requiring something like accountability to these ethical standards.)
- Fed up with the bad actors and the lack of real consequences for their fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism, honest scientists quit in disgust. Please, not this one! This amounts to leaving the discipline in the hands of the bad actors. Given that the honest scientists were most likely drawn to science by their love of a certain kind of knowledge-building activity, they’d be letting go of that love because of the people who didn’tlove that knowledge-building activity enough not to cheat on it. That would be tragic — plus, it would leave the body of scientific knowledge much worse off.
- Fed up with the bad actors and the lack of real consequences for their fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism, honest scientists stay in science but distrust everyone. This is only a little bit better than the last option. Building an accurate and reliable picture of the phenomena in our world requires teamwork, collaboration, and cooperation. You can’t have those without some level of trust.
And here are the two responses I think could actually make a difference:
- Change the reward structure within the institutions where science is practiced to undercut the ability of bad actors to profit from their fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism. Of course, this option assumes you in a place within those institutions where you have a say in what the reward structures are like. Such people exist.
- Stop freakin’ tolerating other scientists engaged in fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism, and other practiced that undermine the honesty needed to do good science. Start at home, with your friends, colleagues, students, collaborators. Don’t be an enabler or a bystander. This is your discipline the bad actors are hurting!
Some of the change, I hope, will come “from above” — from deans and administrators and CEOs who understand what is at stake in setting up conditions where there’s no good incentive for cheating. At least some of these people will remember what it was like to be a practicing scientist, and will still cling to their love of the kind of knowledge-building activity good science really is.
But a lot of the serious work of changing the culture of science must be done in the trenches. It must be done by scientists who give a damn, and who won’t stand for someone scooping the heart out of an activity that matters.
It’s time to choose a side.