The Conundrum of Scientific Fraud

Science, and the behavior of scientists, has never been perfect. Consider the Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk, whose claim to have extracted stem cells from human embryos that he cloned turned out to be based on phony research. Hwang has just been fired by Seoul National University, and six of his co-workers have been suspended or had their pay cut.

Hwang and his colleagues are hardly alone. In response to the recurrence of well-publicized and highly damaging scandals in recent years, many universities and some entire national research funding agencies now convene “institutional review boards” to deal with breaches of what has come to be known as “research ethics.”

But are such boards necessary? If so, in what spirit should they conduct their work?

From artists to scientists, all intellectual workers are preoccupied with the giving and taking of credit. Hiring, promoting, and rewarding academic staff is increasingly based on “citation counts” – the number of times someone receives credit in peer-approved publications. Even if someone’s work is criticized, it must be credited properly.