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The Misconduct of Science?

WOLLERAU, SWITZERLAND – Scientific fraud, plagiarism, and ghost writing are increasingly being reported in the news media, creating the impression that misconduct has become a widespread and omnipresent evil in scientific research. But these reports are more an example of sensationalist media latching on to a hot topic than a true account of the deterioration of scientific values.

Far from being the norm in scientific research, fraud and cheating are rare exceptions, and are usually quickly identified by other scientists. And the public seems to understand this. Indeed, trust and confidence in scientific research have not been seriously undermined by reports of misconduct. Nor have these rare incidents curtailed scientific progress, which is so valuable to humankind.

To be sure, even a few cases of scientific misconduct are too many. Scientists are expected to be beacons of hope in the search for knowledge – and clever enough not to try to get away with cheating. Preventive mechanisms are in place to hold responsible the few who take the gamble. But, while the scientific community – including academic and professional institutions, agency heads, managers, and editors – is often reluctant to handle cases of misconduct rigorously, the reputation of science as a whole is at stake, not just that of a person, institution, journal, or national science entity.

Ironically, those who are caught often blame their misconduct on competition, pressure to publish, and recognition and prizes – the very practices and incentives that the scientific community introduced and fostered. Indeed, while the menace of misconduct has been exaggerated, we have to rethink how we conduct science – its values, virtues, and shortcomings.

Scientists must follow a path that is not scientifically predefined, and that requires decisions at every step. Whether they are right or wrong becomes clear in retrospect, which is why errors are unavoidable (though they should not be left uncorrected for long). Science means constantly walking a tightrope between blind faith and curiosity; between expertise and creativity; between bias and openness; between experience and epiphany; between ambition and passion; and between arrogance and conviction – in short, between an old today and a new tomorrow.

But, nowadays, research increasingly is misdirected toward lucrative prizes, professional recognition, and financial gains – rewards that are suffocating the creativity and passion that scientific progress demands. As T.S. Eliot put it, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

In the “hard” sciences, such as mathematics and physics, the truth can be established more transparently, making these fields less prone to scientific misconduct. But branches like medicine, humanities, philosophy, economics, and other social sciences, which rely more heavily on openness and imagination, can be manipulated more easily to suit the goals of bureaucrats.

Indeed, today, too many areas that are being called “science” – for example, collecting biased statistics in order to make a politician’s (or corporation’s) point, or publishing a variation of existing knowledge – fall far short of scientific standards of originality and the quest for basic insight.

And yet, while bureaucratization of science has fueled concerns about its attractiveness to talented thinkers, we should not be overly pessimistic. To be sure, many people have lamented the loss of brilliant minds to the financial sector over the past few decades. But perhaps we should consider it a stroke of luck that these geniuses created their mess somewhere else.

Moreover, we underestimate the younger generation of scientists. Like the previous generation, many gifted young researchers know that they must work hard to meet monumental challenges and make valuable contributions to society.

But we must be careful not to corrupt their work with the questionable practices that the scientific community has adopted in recent years. The new generation of researchers must be given the skills and values – not just scientific ideals, but also awareness of human weaknesses – that will enable it to correct its forebears’ mistakes.