In the last post, we started looking at the results of a 2006 study by Raymond De Vries, Melissa S. Anderson, and Brian C. Martinson  in which they deployed focus groups to find out what issues in research ethics scientists themselves find most difficult and worrisome. That post focused on two categories the scientists being studied identified as fraught with difficulty, the meaning of data and the rules of science. In this post, we’ll focus on the other two categories where scientists expressed concerns, life with colleagues and the pressures of production in science. We’ll also look for the take-home message from this study.
The focus groups of scientists in this study saw much worrisome behavior in response to the challenge of getting along with other scientists. Central to this challenge is the problem of how to negotiate collaborations of various sorts in an environment that rewards individual achievement. One scientist in a focus group describes the situation:
“… along those lines I think [we must be] aware … not to cut people out. It is like, go out of your way to include people that might have made any kind of contribution whatsoever … in my field in particular [there are] innumerable instances where people are cooperating well until something really spectacular is found. And then all of a sudden people are just lopped-off at the knees … literally on the day something was found, it just [starts] to crumble and … people just don’t speak to each other anymore, or [are] trying to block publications, just sort of a mess.” (46)
The interpersonal tensions described here are both foreseeable and distressing to scientists. But if they’re foreseeable, might they also be avoidable?
Given the constraints, there are different strategies for avoiding such tensions. Some of these might hinge on individual-level behavior, but others might turn on changes at the institutional or community level, including changes in the reward structures for scientific activity. (We’ve touched on this kind of issue many, many times before, and I don’t imagine we’re done with the subject.)
Indeed, the responses of the scientists in this study seem to identify a range of strategies for success as a scientist that they feel might technically comply with the rules (for example, falling short of fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism) while doing actual harm to the members of the scientific community and to their shared enterprise.
The pressure to produce — coupled with uncertainties about ownership of ideas, the proper way to assess scientific output (quantity or quality?), the management of competing interests, and the division of labor in research — is associated with a number of behaviors that do not quite reach the threshold of FFP but nevertheless are regarded by scientists as misconduct. The problems mentioned by members of our focus group included: manipulation of the review system, (improper) control of research by funders, difficulties in assigning authorship, exploitation of junior colleagues, unreported conflicts of interest, the theft of ideas from conference papers and grant proposals, publishing the same thing twice (or more), withholding of data, and ignoring teaching responsibilities. (46)
Scientists view these behaviors as misconduct, but they still see them happening. This raises the question of what the scientific community should — or could — do about it.
Given the other responses gathered from the focus groups, the best way forward would probably not involve simply imposing additional rules against these behaviors.
The four big areas of concern De Vries et al. identified in the focus group responses are interconnected. For example “life with colleagues” can bleed into “the pressures of production,” especially when scientists are involved in building new knowledge and new scientists:
The fear of competition from one’s students and post-docs highlights a structural dilemma in the training of scientists: to succeed in science it is important to attract the most talented graduate students and new PhDs, but these bright young researchers, once trained, become one’s competition (46-47)
More generally, that doing science requires a position and funding (sometimes from different entities with different priorities) makes it hard not to compromise some of your scientific commitment to be tough-minded in your pursuit of objectivity. One focus group participant describes the pressures vividly:
“For example, a particular study that I’m involved in is about drugs to … offset the effect of radiation … [The] company that makes [the] drug … does not want a certain control group in the study and will not fund the study if that control group is there … there’s nothing illegal about [this], and I know for a fact it happens all the time and that’s the way it goes. It’s because government can’t pony up enough money to do all the clinical research that needs to get done. In this … study … the individual who’s going to be principal investigator is an untenured assistant professor … And you know, screwing around with this drug company, negotiating the study, has cost her a lot of time, and she, it’s going to make it harder for her to get tenure. And the pressure is clearly on her to knuckle under. I mean, she could have started this study months ago if she’d just said, sure, I’ll do whatever you want, give me the money. (47)
It’s important to note that feeling such pressures is not the same as giving in to them. However, the greater these pressures, the more likely it is that good scientists may end up making bad choices.
We’ve seen the sweep of the perceptions and concerns voiced by the focus groups in this study. At this point, we might as how representative these focus groups are. How widely shared are their perceptions and concerns within the larger scientific community? De Vries et al. constructed a survey to help them answer this question:
[U]sing what we learned in the focus groups, together with data from earlier studies, we developed a survey which we distributed to a sample of scientists funded by the NIH. We presented our respondents with a list of 33 misbehaviors ranging from the fairly innocuous (have you signed a form, letter, or report without reading it completely?) to the more serious (have you falsified or “cooked” research data?) and asked two questions:
- In your work, have you observed or had other direct evidence of any of the following behaviors among your professional colleagues, including postdoctoral associates, within the last three years?
- Please tell us if you yourself have engaged in any of these behaviors within the last three years?
Because reports of what others are doing is not a reliable measure of the incidence of behavior — several respondents may report the same incident — we use self-reports to describe the prevalence of misbehavior. In a few places we do use respondents’ accounts of the behavior of their colleagues, but only to allow a glimpse of scientists’ perception of a behavior’s prevalence. (47)
There’s another paper  that focuses on the results of this survey; I’ll be blogging about that paper soon. In the meantime, on the question of whether the focus groups are a reasonable representation of the scientific community:
Our focus group data predicted well the responses from the national sample. (47)
The quick answer is, yes.
So, what should we do with these findings? First, De Vries et al. draw some lessons for policymakers:
Our conversations with scientists lead us to conclude that a certain amount of “normal misbehavior” is common in the dynamic field of science. This is not to suggest that these behaviors should be condoned, but, following Durkheim, we see these behaviors as playing “a useful and irreplaceable role.” …
[N]ormal misbehaviors show us the “pinch points” in the organization of science. It is particularly important to notice that when scientists talk about behaviors that compromise the integrity of their work, they do not focus on FFP; rather, they mention more mundane (and more common) transgressions, and they link these problems to the ambiguities and everyday demands of scientific research. When policymakers limit their concerns to the prevention of infrequently occurring cases of FFP, they overlook the many ways scientists compromise their work in an effort to accommodate to the way science is funded and scientists are trained. (47-48)
Fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism may be egregious enough that even policymakers see what’s wrong with them. But these are likely the tail-end of a trajectory of normal misbehavior, not where a scientist starts going off the rails. Where things start going bad is more likely to be in the gray areas of ambiguity about methodology and results. While these gray areas are unavoidable, the pressures upon scientists to produce and to distinguish themselves may make it seem expedient to sacrifice objectivity and fairness toward fellow scientists.
Ratcheting down the pressures may make the gray areas less dangerous.
Our focus group data demonstrate that any effort to reduce misbehavior and misconduct must pay attention to the nature of scientific work and to the internal processes of science. (48)
Policymakers, in other words, need to know something about the complexity of scientific research — what makes the tough calls tough — in order to establish better conditions within which scientists can make good decisions.
Of course, scientists may need to step up and take responsibility for accomplishing what policies and regulations imposed from outside the scientific community cannot accomplish. Luckily, scientists have a vested interest in getting their community to a well-functioning state.
We are aware that mandated training in the “responsible conduct of research” (RCR) focuses on FFP and the normal misbehavior identified by our focus group participants, but the very ordinariness of the latter shields it from the attention of national policymakers and institutional officials. (48)
To me, it feels like there’s a bit of a tension here. Given the resistance scientists display to burdensome rules imposed by policymakers, what will it accomplish to have those policymakers pay more attention to normal misbehavior? Arguably, isn’t it the scientists mentoring other scientists and interacting with their scientific peers who need to pay more attention to normal misbehavior?
And paying attention to normal misbehavior is not enough. Having strategies for responding to normal misbehavior would be better.
When we look beyond FFP we discover that the way to better and more ethical research lies in understanding and addressing the causes of normal misbehavior. This is not a call for increased surveillance of the mundane work of researchers, a response that would create undue and problematic interference in the research process. Rather, the presence of normal misbehavior in science should direct attention to the social conditions that lead to both acceptable and unacceptable innovations on the frontiers of knowledge. (48-49)
Ahh, here’s where policymakers and institutional officers could be a real help to scientists. Paying attention to normal misbehaviors — and understanding the conditions that give rise to it — could go hand in hand with adjusting the institutional contexts (including reward structures) and social conditions. In other words, scientists within the community, policymakers, and institutional officers share the responsibility for understanding the foreseeable outcomes of the system as it now stands — and for creating a system that leads to better outcomes.
 Raymond De Vries, Melissa S. Anderson, and Brian C. Martinson (2006) “Normal Misbehavior: Scientists Talk About the Ethics of Research” Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics 1(1), 43-50.
 Brian C. Martinson, Melissa S. Anderson, A. Lauren Crain, and Raymond De Vries (2006) “Scientists’ Perceptions of Organizational Justica and Self-Reported Misbehaviors” Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics 1(1), 51-66.