Reports of irregularities in biomedical research--ranging from outright fakery and plagiarism to poor record-keeping--have increased markedly in recent years, shaking leading research institutions and triggering a sharp debate on the extent of the problem and the need for corrective measures.
The National Institutes of Health, a government agency that funds a third of all biomedical research in the United States, now receives two or three serious allegations of misconduct a month; as recently as seven years ago such reports were almost unheard of, according to Mary L. Miers, the NIH misconduct policy officer.
These charges are about equally divided between those that are baseless, those that prove to be true and those that are true to some degree but turn out to be less serious--such as when a researcher has not kept records of his experiments but did in fact conduct them, Miers said.
"The most frequent finding is not psychopathology or outright dishonesty, but accumulated cutting of corners and sloppiness," said Dr. William Raub, the institute's deputy director at a symposium on fraud in science held at the University of California, Davis, Medical Center last year. "(Researchers) will admit incompetence but say, 'I am not a crook.' "
The most recent serious incident surfaced last November, when Harvard researchers retracted their just-announced discovery of a new molecule that stimulated the human immune system and was seen as crucial to understanding the body's ability to ward off disease. The molecule, they admitted, did not exist.
Such incidents can lead not only to wasted time and money but also to diminished respect for the quality of research in general, and perhaps even can cause harm to patients whose treatments are based on faulty information.
In 1986, after four years of planning, the NIH implemented new procedures for dealing with scientific misconduct. These include guidelines for conducting investigations, requirements that institutions receiving federal funds more closely monitor their own scientists, and safeguards for the rights of those accused.
"This is really a step forward," said Patricia K. Woolf, a sociologist affiliated with Princeton University who monitors fraud in science. "It had been extremely uncomfortable to indict a colleague accused of misconduct. Now there is an orderly way of doing it."
But others say even tighter federal controls may be necessary, including more stringent record-keeping requirements and spot audits of researchers.
Nobody is really sure how often scientific misconduct occurs, because few studies have been performed to find out. The National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine is expected to launch a major study of the issue soon, but details are not available.
While wholesale fraud is believed to be rare, subtle abuses appear to be more frequent and probably far more damaging because they are less likely to be detected. Scientists have coined colorful expressions to describe some of these abuses, such as "honorary authorship" for the practice of padding the list of authors on a research paper and "salami science" for the practice of reporting results in several papers when one article would suffice.
The allegations also have focused attention on the often extreme pressures on scientists who seek prestige, large research grants and academic promotions.
The problem "begins with fierce competition in college, excessive emphasis on grades and the rise of students who become 22-hour-a-day study machines," according to Dr. Robert G. Petersdorf of the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine. "Medical science today is too competitive, too big, too entrepreneurial and too much bent on winning."
Not an Excuse
But such pressures do not excuse misdeeds, he said, writing in the Annals of Internal Medicine last June: "Those who have chosen science for a career have, in a sense, taken an oath to discover and disseminate the truth, much as physicians have sworn the Oath of Hippocrates."
The traditional view holds that science is ultimately self-correcting because researchers eventually discover the honest mistakes--or frauds--committed by others.
In the normal process of scientific research, there are many steps along the way at which mistakes or misdeeds can be picked up. These include the review of research grant proposals and the evaluation of scientific papers by independent experts. Also, when researchers undergo evaluation for promotion or tenure, their work is closely reviewed.
Furthermore, researchers usually present their findings at scientific meetings, where they can be questioned by colleagues. Finally, significant discoveries often prompt confirmation efforts by other researchers; when the findings cannot be confirmed, doubts arise.