December 20, 2012 | Posted By Zubin Master, PhD

Last month, I discussed a research integrity case making international headlines of an iPS cell study conducted by a researcher Hisashi Moriguchi who had allegedly falsified or fabricated data, provided false institutional affiliation, plagiarized work, and had questionable publication practices. In this post, I want to outline a few of the lessons we can learn from this case.

I think Péter Kakuk said it best when he wrote that the Hwang cloning scandal “might shed light on the often neglected benefits of the 'social control of science'".  As a trained scientist, I can say that I used to believe that many of the safeguards felt more like impediments to research progress. As a bioethics researcher, I still feel there are kinks in the system of ethical oversight and there is evidence to support this view. However, I also believe that the ethical safeguards are in place to promote the responsible conduct of research and ensure that research is performed by upholding the utmost standards of integrity. In every issue of Nature or Science there is some report of research misconduct or misbehavior. There have been studies done in the US and many other nations about the frequency of misconduct. Yet despite such reports, I feel many scientists still believe there are too many research hurdles only to catch a few bad apples. This view needs to shift.

Perhaps the safeguards are in place to catch a few, but a few is all we need to fuel public distrust. Although I am skeptical that the fabric of public trust in science is likely to tear as easily as many commentators claim, I do believe if more serious misconduct cases in a particular area of research were to emerge and receive significant media attention, it could definitely shake-up the field, like stem cell research. Perhaps the general public may not altogether distrust science, but certainly specific publics or policy-makers could lose trust and this could affect public support for science. The safeguards are there for the protection of science as an institution and to ensure that our social contract is upheld. Thus, researchers need to see safeguards as part and parcel of the conduct of research and not as obstacles. But let’s not put the onus strictly on altering the perceptions of researchers, there is certainly evidence to suggest that some of the safeguards lack efficiency and can impede research and thus the processes need to be made more efficient. For now, I will not get into this discussion.

How can this be done? I think education and raising awareness are still key and one major way to influence social and cultural change. As journal clubs are embedded within the culture of research labs and centers, why not have discussion groups on research integrity. This would be beyond the online research integrity program or graduate course students are required to take. But it isn’t about teaching students only. Lab principal investigators (PIs) need to be cognizant of research misconduct and also take a leadership role and give students the opportunity to learn and discuss issues openly and freely. PIs should also be more intimately involved in teaching research integrity courses. And this doesn’t mean the one or two researchers in a department, but pretty much a department-wide effort. Research integrity should not be looked as some milestone to complete, some hurdle or impediment to overcome, or as some police that is constantly monitoring researchers. Researchers are human, and honest mistakes and even bad practices will occur, but by raising awareness and training researchers at all levels will help promote a culture where research and research integrity go hand in hand, and is not seen as burdensome.

Another thing that comes to mind in regards to this case is about the rewards of science and the pressure put on scientists to publish. This is not an excuse to commit misconduct (and here I don’t mean only fabrication, falsification or plagiarism but all types of questionable practices). But certainly the hype of research and the immense pressure to be the first to publish in fear of being scooped combined with a serious positive publication bias where positive data is highly revered may permit even the most ethical of researchers to cut corners or to overlook the final draft of a manuscript. Publications remain the major currency to provide academics with prestige and the rewards of science including, tenure and promotion, grants and awards, invitations for lectures and talks, and membership on committees. I think this is also part of the problem. Many have argued that the rewards of science should not focus so strongly on a researcher’s ability to publish, but on many other aspects of science, including mentoring junior researchers, teaching, and public outreach. More work has to be done in order to shift institutional mentality and to give greater consideration to other hallmarks of a scientist beyond research productivity and publications. And this shift needs to come from our dominant scientific institutions and their leadership including funding bodies, universities and colleges, academic scientific departments, and scientific societies.

How can this be done? Well more mentoring awards, the number of students graduated and student recommendations should receive substantive recognition during tenure and promotion and during the evaluation of the researcher for funding and other awards. Perhaps if a researcher is also involved in public outreach events and service, this too should be recognized beyond other committee work during tenure and promotion and for other rewards in science.

Ensuring integrity will require a concerted effort by researchers, ethicists, policy makers, funders, university administrators, journal editors and many others. Everyone has to do their part and strive to take a more active stance to uphold research integrity – even me.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

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