Scientific Misconduct – An Insight

“There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale
returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.”

Mark Twain

Human beings are passionate; scientists more so than anyone else. That we take a few given facts and let our imaginations run wild is probably our best quality as far as science is concerned. For centuries, budding scientists have taken for granted many bits of established theories and facts while questioning many others. The result has been a victory for science whether the scientist himself benefits or not.

Ideally, one would like to have a research lab equipped with all necessary equipment, excellent research assistants who are dedicated to achieving results and an endless supply of necessities like money, public support and appreciation which lead to extremely unequivocal results which support our conjecture.

In reality, we have labs with constraints of every type possible, the most important being industry support and funding. A lead scientist in charge of a lab has, along with his career, the careers of his research assistants and fellows to think about.

Grants come from bodies interested in research enough to invest in it. They prefer some research to others as they hit closer to home for them. A scientist who does research for scientific curiosity alone will have to wait in line behind those who have marketable results in the offing. This does erode the scientific passion. Brian Martinson, an investigator with the Health Partners Research Foundation in Minneapolis said “Science has changed a lot in terms of its competitiveness. We’ve turned science into a big business but failed to note that some of the rules of science don’t fit well with that model.”

Science for the sake of science is a luxury few labs can afford. One can be dismayed but not very shocked at the instances of scientists modifying results to fit to already-accepted conjecture. One can understand that the Pharmaceutical Industry is one of the most affected industries as regards this fact.

This brings us to the issue of scientific misconduct. It has many definitions and interpretations but one way to simplify it probably is ‘Submission of data which is suspect in terms of authenticity, originality, completeness, level of accuracy or level of certainty.’ This is the type that is most talked about. The term can also be stretched to include ‘use of scientific/academic authority to commit an act which is unethical or worse illegal.’

Of the various speculated theories which attempt to explain the commitment of scientific misconduct by highly educated, intelligent and industrious people, one theory states that some scientists doctor their results to fit their own theories. One may jump to a conclusion that this is motivated by avaricious needs to present a ‘successful’ bit of research i.e. one that agrees with a theory which has some credibility attached to it.

There is no defense for this act but when one digs deeper, one wonders whether avarice and greed to be the toast of the scientific community is just one motive and not the motive. We cannot get inside the skull of those scientists who have admitted to altering results to know their true motive but we can give them a fair moral trial in our minds by examining the situation with greater scrutiny.

This article does not attempt to justify acts of scientific misconduct. It simply believes that there is more to the idea of the talented, brilliant forerunners of our society destroying their careers and their reputations in one fell swoop than meets the eye.

So here goes, when a person approaches an experiment, he has prejudged it to some extent. It will take a yogi to have a completely dispassionate view of the experiment. There is a thought process which has gone on in this mind which has been validated by years of good research and a great academic record. The scientist foresees a result, chews on it and slowly makes it his own. It rarely happens that the research outcome completely negates the theory. More often than not, some fluctuations are introduced which skew the results just enough to challenge the theory.

“If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts.” Albert Einstein

One wonders in what context this great mind said that. Fortunately for some scientists, their conjectures and mathematical proofs cannot be challenged simply because an experiment of that kind would not be feasible. For example, Archimedes said, “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the earth.” He said this right after he enlightened us with the principle of levers. With simple mathematics, one can prove that no matter where Archimedes stands, he cannot move the earth by even a fraction of an inch. But, a great mind like his was fooled by ego or an arrogant belief in a theory which has beset many of the scientists today.

One wonders then, whether science is reduced to a mere series of experiments and people in suits with regulatory expertise breathing down the necks of scientists. John Forbes Nash Jr. (winner of 1994 Nobel Prize for Economics and a great contributor to Game Theory) dropped Chemistry in college as he felt ‘it only measured how someone could handle a pipette and perform a titration and not how well one could think.’ But, if thinking is attached to caveats of financial and legal nature, it will stifle the original scientist and could probably force them to see results they want to see.

Gregor Mendel’s laws on genetics were taken for granted and then slowly modified and optimized as newer discoveries came about. However, W. F. R Weldon suspected that Mendel’s experiment results came too close to the expected ones and after applying the chi square test, he concluded that Mendel’s results must be investigated. Ronald A. Fisher opined the same way. It took a lot for these people to challenge very well established laws, and it puts the thought in a person’s mind that Mendel had certain views on Genetics and perhaps decided to adjust his experiment results to agree with what he thought.

One is unable to understand why such acts of, at the very least, suspect research, and at most, misconduct are committed by people. Great scientists who have been accused of such acts do not deserve the label of avarice or greed or even ego. There needs to be more research in this aspect to determine what is it that makes scientists falsify, fabricate, plagiarize etc.

At any point we must not forget that for the most part, these are path-breaking innovators with dazzling IQs and legitimate contributions to society. They deserve some more consideration and analysis.

In conclusion, all I can say is that there is no excuse for scientific misconduct and it must never be condoned. There have to be some measures, though, to investigate the cause of misconduct which will help us come up with permanent solutions to this problem as opposed to simply deterrents and punishments.

5 thoughts on “Scientific Misconduct – An Insight

  1. sometimes, misconduct is unintentional caused by hitherto unexplained behaviour of unknown phenomena. otherwise its all just greed, only the degree matters.

  2. Scientific research is based on assumptions,present variables and expectations from research.Misconduct need not be intentional could be accidental too.

  3. @buddy and rambunaOnly intentional deeds come under misconduct. If an accused can prove his ignorance during such an event, he is not considered to have committed misconduct. We are talking about those who modify data knowing that what they are doing is wrong.

  4. 'Misconduct' is like any of the human attributes and I think no field has been excluded from its touch because it has nothing to do with field….where there is human there are human attributes. Though, days in past have seen passionate scientists that just observed for the sheer pleasure of knowledge because the driving force was not commerce but "To know" was the agenda. Today, we are far more knowledgeable ( yet so gullible…again a distinctly human character). The IQ levels of general human has gone high and this general "over confidence in human" has adversely affected research. Many things have moved from subconscious state to conscious mind and the 'Glory' of tagging oneself knowledgeable (that usually hits the masses only if ur results can be converted in the dollar generation value) has created a pressure on commercially driven results. Anything that helps you to gain that extra credit is always welcome at any cost. And I think like any other complex behavior of Human, there cant be any permanent solution to it.

So, what do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s