Scientific misconduct isnít always as breathtaking as falsely claiming to have cloned human embryos, as a South Korean researcher did several years ago. It's also not that rare. A new study reports high levels of wrongdoing as banal as sloppy record-keeping or as troubling as selective data collection.
A confidential survey of scientists who received funding from the National Institutes of Health found that 2,193 out of 2,599 respondents had experienced one or more incidents of misconduct over their careers, Gerald Koocher of Simmons College and Patricia Keith-Spiegel of Ball State University report in Nature. The researchers did not determine to what extent the misconduct was intentional. About 40 percent of scientists who received the e-mailed survey responded.
These less dramatic forms of wrongdoing aren't going unnoticed. The survey also reports that colleagues intervening informally are taking steps to correct scientists behaving badly.
Almost two-thirds of the scientists who said they had seen irresponsible scientific behavior took action to stop it. Most of the steps they took were informal conversations rather than official complaints.
"Given the amount of research going on and nature of human beings, I am not surprised at the incidence," Koocher, who is associate provost and professor of psychology at Simmons, said in an interview. "What did surprise [us] very pleasantly was the high number who intervened. Thatís the takeaway: Wow, a lot of stuff is going on, but when people notice, a good bunch of them intervene and those interventions are often effective."
People were more likely to question a coworker if they were higher up the chain of command than the suspected wrong-doer, the survey found. A little distance was helpful, too. Friends didnít tell friends of their concerns as often as they told people they werenít as close to.
Whatever the relationship, anecdotes that the researchers also collected from respondents list such successful tactics as expressing concern, claiming confusion, and using flattery to make their points.
ďHe was intentionally cutting corners in a way that would bias the data, but I decided to play dumb,Ē one story cited by the researchers said. ďI told him that I was puzzled about his methods and that I had learned to do it a different way. I then added a little flattery: ĎYou do such important work, I would hate to see anyone criticize it.í He had to admit I was right.Ē
Koocher and Keith-Spiegel concluded that informal intervention can be effective, and offer examples of how to do it on the web site ethicsresearch.com, funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the NIH Office of Research Integrity.
"What you want is something that will enable the potential offender to save face, but potentially also say that other people are noticing this. That has the effect of creating an environment that doesn't tolerate wrongdoing," Koocher said.
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