A reader writes:
I was in a PhD program in materials science, in a group that did biomedical research (biomaterials end of the field) and was appalled at the level of misconduct I saw. Later, I entered an MD program. I witnessed some of the ugliest effects of ambition in the lab there.
Do you think biomedical research is somehow “ethically worse” than other fields?
I’ve always wanted to compare measurable instances of unethical behavior across different fields. As an undergraduate I remember never hearing or seeing anything strange with the folks that worked with metallurgy and it never seemed to be an issue with my colleagues in these areas in graduate school. Whenever there is trouble it seems to come from the biomedical field. I’d love to see you write about that.
Thank you for doing what you do, since that time I have so many regrets, your blog keeps me sane.
First, I must thank this reader for the kind words. I am thrilled (although still a bit bewildered) that what I write here is of interest and use to others, and if I can contribute to someone’s sanity while I’m thinking out loud (or on the screen, as the case may be), then I feel like this whole “blogging” thing is worthwhile.
Next, on the question of whether biomedical research is somehow “ethically worse” than research in other areas of science, the short answer is: I don’t know.
Certainly there are some high profile fraudsters — and scientists whose misbehavior, while falling short of official definitions of misconduct, also fell well short of generally accepted ethical standards — in the biomedical sciences. I’ve blogged about the shenanigans of biologists, stem cell researchers, geneticists, cancer researchers, researchers studying the role of hormones in aging, researchers studying immunosuppression, anesthesiologists, and biochemists.
But the biomedical sciences haven’t cornered the market on ethical lapses, as we’ve seen in discussions of mechanical engineers, nuclear engineers, physicists, organic chemists, paleontologists, and government geologists.
There are, seemingly, bad actors to be found in every scientific field. Of course, it is reasonable to assume that there are also plenty of honest and careful scientists in every scientific field. Maybe the list of well-publicized bad actors in biomedical research is longer, but given the large number of biomedical researchers compared to the number of researchers in all scientific fields (and also the extent to which the public might regard biomedical research as more relevant to their lives than, say, esoteric questions in organic synthesis), is it disproportionately long?
Again, that’s hard to gauge.
However, my correspondent’s broad question strikes me as raising a number of related empirical questions that it would be useful to try to answer:
1. Which areas of science have the highest incidence of cheating?
Here, the easiest numbers to get would be the incidence of misconduct (usually defined as fabrication, falsification, and/or plagiarism) as determined by rulings from federal oversight organizations (like the Office of the Inspector General at the National Science Foundation, the Office of Research Integrity, or corresponding bodies outside the U.S.). These numbers could then be compared to estimates of working scientists in the various fields of research (or the numbers of scientists who have secured grants in these fields, etc.).
Such data, though, will necessarily only give a partial picture. For one thing, they will only reflect instances of misconduct that have been detected, not those that remain undetected. Indeed, they may not even give completely accurate numbers as far as detected misconduct, given that not all institutions to which such misconduct is reported alert federal oversight organizations (even in cases where internal inquiries and/or investigations determine that allegations of misconduct are supported by the evidence). “Dealing with it” locally may help an institution protect its reputation, but such gaps in uniform reporting also mean that it’s really hard to know just how many cheaters are out there, and how much cheating they have done.
It’s worth mentioning, too, that there is a good bit of anecdotal discussion of ethical lapses people have seen — which, presumably, are often left unreported (sometimes because the people who have observed the lapses are at the wrong end of a power gradient relative to the researcher committing the lapses). As with all data, if it’s not routinely reported (and assessed), it’s hard to include it in an accurate picture of a scientific field’s ethical health.
There has been some research — at least some of which we’ve examined here — on what kinds of ethical lapses scientists notice in their professional environments (and regard as dangerous to the integrity of science), on how well they reckon their colleagues are doing at living up to the norms of science, and on what kinds of questionable behaviors in which scientists admit to indulging themselves. Such research offers glimpses of problematic behavior beyond that which results in official misconduct rulings. However, in the absence of more data, it’s hard to draw solid conclusions.
2. In which areas of science is it easiest to get away with cheating?
This is a tricky question to answer empirically, since those who really get away with cheating are those whose cheating remains undetected — so, we haven’t identified it as cheating. I suppose a clever team of researchers might come up with conditions where they could inject more or less obvious instances of cheating in the pools of grant proposals or manuscripts submitted to journals in order to test whether peer reviewers are able to identify them as fraudulent, but I don’t know whether such a study could get IRB approval.
Such deception might arguably do some harm to the subjects of the experiment.
Another option might be to collect data on the length of time it took for various instances of cheating to be discovered and adjudicated. Again, this has the limitation of giving us information on cases where cheating has been discovered, but not on cases where the cheaters succeeded in getting away with it. Still, trends in the time-to-detection data from various scientific fields might give us some insight.
I have heard the argument that cheating in the biomedical sciences is easier to get away with on account of the nature of biological systems (as compared, say, to physical or chemical systems). The natural variations in organisms, the theory goes, are sufficient that no one ever really expects to exactly reproduce the results other researchers have reported. There’s also the possibility that certain lines of research lack rigorous statistical analyses, so that researchers may be satisfied getting results that kind of look close enough.
Believe me, though, replication of experimental results is plenty hard in the “hard” sciences. And, there’s not much in the way of grant money to support attempts at replication, nor career rewards for succeeding in such attempts. Moreover, it seems likely that our evolving understanding of the best experimental methods and measurement techniques changes the kinds of results subsequent experiments produce, as well as changing what the experimenters are inclined to identify as “good data” versus noise.
Finally, if a cheater fabricates data that ends up being close enough to correct, this is not the sort of thing other scientists are likely to discover in their own efforts to replicate the reported results.
So, this may be a difficult question to answer empirically, but it seems like an important question, at least to the extent that scientists don’t want to be too vulnerable to deception.
3. In which areas of science does there exist the most pressure to cheat?
One way to try to answer this question might be to collect data on the perceptions of researchers.
Additionally, we might examine the details of the reward structures in place or of the available resources for which scientists in different fields are in competition. This might include comparing the number of postdoc and faculty slots available to the number of Ph.D.s vying for them, or comparing costs to pursue a line of research to the amount of funding available (both in terms of the size of grants and the number of grants given compared to the number of researchers competing for them), or tracking the average number of publications researchers need on their CV to get hired or tenured.
It’s also possible that the frequency of misconduct findings, and the severity of sanctions, in a particular field compared to the researcher population in that field might shed some light on the pressure to cheat in the field. However, I suspect that there are some researchers who won’t cheat even when faced with high pressure to do so, and others who will cheat if there’s any reasonable hope of getting away with it, even if the external pressure to do so it really low.
4. In which areas of science does the professional culture do the least to discourage ethically questionable practices?
Think of this as the flip-side of question #3: what kind of pressure is there in a field to be good? What do the grown-up scientists in a field teach the trainees about the best practices and the pitfalls to be avoided? Are such issues even explicitly discussed?
Who are the sources of information about how scientists in a given field are supposed to behave? Is it just the example set by one’s PI, or can a trainee count on multiple mentors (either at their institution or throughout their profession) when it comes to responsible conduct of research? Are trainees in a field getting a fairly uniform message about how scientists ought to behave, or widely divergent messages?
Of course, finding data that bears on this question might be quite informative in working out effective strategies to teach responsible conduct of research (and to make sure the lessons are taken to heart).
Maybe something like good answers to these empirical questions would support my correspondent’s hunch that the biomedical sciences have bigger ethical problems to reckon with than do other scientific fields. Or maybe biomedical research will end up being in better shape than other fields on some of these dimensions and in worse shape on others.
Or, maybe, the data could reveal that all the scientific fields face more or less the same ethical challenges.
I do think it’s worth actually trying to get a handle on these questions, though — to find out how one’s scientific field is doing as far as the prevalence of ethical and unethical behaviors, and to take steps to address the problems that the data reveal.