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Researchers Admit to Lapses in Ethics

Fewer than 2% of 3,200 biomedical scientists surveyed acknowledge serious breaches. One in three reports at least one questionable act.

June 09, 2005|Charles Piller | Times Staff Writer

One in three biomedical researchers has engaged in at least one practice of questionable scientific integrity, according to a survey published today in the journal Nature.

Only a small fraction of respondents -- fewer than 2% -- acknowledged serious lapses: plagiarism, or falsification or fabrication of data.

Lesser transgressions, however, were relatively common in the survey, which posed questions on 34 ethical issues.

Of about 3,200 scientists surveyed, 1.7% said they had used confidential information without authorization, 6% had withheld data that contradicted their findings, 12.5% had overlooked the use of flawed data or analysis by others, and 15.5% had changed the design, methodology or results of a study under pressure from a funding source.

Many respondents also said they had inappropriately designated the authorship of papers or had flawed record keeping.

"Integrity in the practice of science is more than just the absence of fraud," said Brian C. Martinson, a researcher at HealthPartners Research Foundation in Minneapolis and lead author of the study.

Martinson said the findings contradicted assumptions that ethical lapses were aberrations within a generally sound research environment.

He suggested that intense competition to win grants and publish in prestigious journals had a corrosive effect on research quality and reliability.

"There is a lot of pressure on people, you might say, to compromise at the margins," said Robert Price, associate vice chancellor for research at UC Berkeley.

He said it was extraordinary that the survey turned up 10 admissions of outright fraud.

The federal Office of Research Integrity, which monitors research for the Department of Health and Human Services, has confirmed only about 160 cases of fraud since 1992.

But Price and other science administrators said such behavior hardly reflected a crisis of scientific honesty.

The survey is "interesting and surprising, but I'm not sure it's significant," said David Goodstein, vice provost at Caltech. "You have to distinguish between really bad behavior, such as plagiarism and fraud, and behavior that is questionable but not terribly bad."

Goodstein and Price doubted some of the conclusions of the study, saying that the complexity of ethical issues in the laboratory was not easily boiled down to a simple survey.

For example, about 200 respondents said they had failed to present data that contradicted their findings. But they may have just ignored poorly developed or irrelevant information.

About 300 respondents said they had failed to give appropriate credit, a lapse that could be tantamount to plagiarism. But their answer could merely reflect second thoughts about the ordering of multiple authors in a published paper -- contentious among scientists but rarely a significant ethical issue.

Yale University science historian Daniel J. Kevles said that without looking at each scientist's behavior in detail, it would be hard to know whether many genuine ethical lapses had occurred.

His book "The Baltimore Case: A Trial of Politics, Science and Character" examined allegations of scientific fraud against Caltech President David Baltimore when he was president of Rockefeller University. Baltimore was later exonerated.

"You have to exercise judgment. Scientists do that all the time," Kevles said. "There seems to be a kind of Puritanism that has entered into scientific discussions about the presentation of data."

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