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'Research misbehavior'

by Jamie TalanNewsday
March 13th, 2006

Why do some scientists lie?

While the recent scandal involving the now discredited research of South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-Suk was an extreme example, ethicists say less flagrant questionable behavior in the halls of science often goes undetected or ignored.

"There is a gray zone," said Michelle Mello, a lawyer and ethicist at the Harvard School of Public Health. "There is an uncertainty as to what is acceptable behavior." She suspects the problem begins with a lack of training in ethical research. What's more, the field is designed to reward scientists for novel discoveries, and prestige, funding and promotions fuel the push to publish.

Scientists are also faced with federal research cuts and are turning to drug companies for money to run their studies. This, Mello said, comes with a hefty ethical price. In a study published last May in the New England Journal of Medicine, Mello asked 100 university administrators about the rela- tionship between their scientists and industry sponsors.

Almost 25 percent said they would have no problem allowing a pharmaceutical company's statisticians to analyze study findings. Half said they would delay publication while the sponsoring company seeks a patent. Half said that they would allow the company to draft the research manuscript.

"There are broader questions about who is driving the boat," Mello said.

"There is a tremendous pressure to produce," said Peggy Fischer of the National Science Foundation's Office of the Inspector General. Last month, Fischer and her colleagues participated in a meeting on responsible conduct in social science research held at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

One of the biggest problems, added Joan Sieber, a professor of psychology emerita of California State University in East Bay, is pressure on the young scientist who is asked to toss out data that could change the interpretation of findings. "This behavior is costly," Sieber said, "and very likely will not surface." She suspects that these "little misbehaviors" go on at a great rate.

Raymond DeVries, an ethicist at the University of Michigan School of Medicine, and his colleagues coined the term "research misbehavior." With federal support, he held focus groups and asked scientists about the things that get them in trouble. He then sent anonymous questionnaires to 3,000 federally funded scientists, asking them whether they had engaged in 10 top misbehaviors.

About 30 percent admitted engaging in research misbehavior, from inadequate record keeping to dropping data to influence results.

"Science is structured like a race," DeVries said. "The competition forces people to do things to stay in the game."

DeVries' findings are to appear in the Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics. Co-author Brian C. Martinson, an investigator with the HealthPartners Research Foundation of Minneapolis, said most participants admitting to ethical lapses were in mid-career.

In the early 1990s, the federal government established the Office of Research Integrity to independently review cases of research misconduct, which includes falsification, plagiarism and fabrication of data.

About a dozen federally funded scientists are brought to task a year. Many lose their research funding for years and in rare cases, for life. Other scientists have faced criminal prosecution.

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