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.