Bioethics in India: Proceedings of the International Bioethics Workshop in Madras: Biomanagement of Biogeoresources, 16-19 Jan. 1997, University of Madras; Editors: Jayapaul Azariah, Hilda Azariah, & Darryl R.J. Macer, Copyright Eubios Ethics Institute 1997.
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104. D'etre an Ethical Scientist: The Art of being between the Devil and Deep-Blue-Sea

John S. Kennedy
Department of Entomology, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore 641 003


Science is a profession; like all professions, it produces knowledge and certifies its practitioners (Chubin, 1985). Nevertheless, accusation of breaking the code or ethics in the form of scientific fraud or malpractice ranging from flagrant and persistent fabrication of data, proven plagiarism, obstinate the defense of an indefensible data, over interpretation of preliminary results, hyperbole in knowledge claims, pirating data during peer reviewing, have been of late reported as the dark side of the research practices. Acknowledging such deviations from the normal research process as an out growth of the routines that govern scientific practice, they can be analyzed as an inherent problem in scientific life.

According to a committee of American Association for the Advancement of Science, 'Professional Ethics' refers to those principles intended to define the rights and responsibilities with each other and with other parties including research subjects, clients, students, employers (Challe et al., 1980). However, professional ethics is essentially a matter of self regulation that can not be imposed by any legislation (Heath, 1989). For a biologist such personal code of ethics develops over a period of time with his growing experience and changing environment.

In this article, I do not attempt to give a solution to such scientific misconduct because it is a matter of self regulation. Nevertheless, I had gone rather into the basic structure of research process as formed by Chubin (1985) and Heath (1989) to analyze where the scientists generally go wrong and what lessons can one learn from this. Because understanding scientific fraud must begin with the understanding and practice of contemporary science (Broad, 1981).

Why the push for scientific malpractice

The primary goal of most scientists, no doubt is the acquisition of truthful knowledge related to his field of specialization. However for a majority, the immediate object is to establish a credit. To achieve this at least eight reasons for scientific fraud or malpractice can be enumerated:

I. Psychopathy (McDonald, 1983)

ii. Unbridled careerism (Broad, 1982)

iii. Publication pressure (Hunt, 1981; Johnson and Prados, 1983)

iv. Competition for funding (Hixson, 1976; West, 1983)

v. The labchief system (Broad and Wade, 1982)

vi. Failure of the peer review system (Relman, 1983)

vii. Lack of replication and sheer sloppiness (Hawkes, 1979; Schmaus, 1981)

viii. Resource crunch in the laboratory

Thus, the malpractice in science is not only due to the deviant attitude of an individual but also, due to a substantial influence of surrounding environment, where research takes place. Committing fraud is different from having codes of ethics. The former may be influenced by the research environment in violating the latter, which is very much personal. However, mostly such instance of malpractice are viewed as negligible in a lot. For example, of the 20,000 grants and contracts between 1980 and 1982 in the National Institutes of Health, USA, only 45 cases of alleged misconduct have been reported (Brandt, 1983). The presence of co-conspirators in the misconduct of scientific research with their loud silence, acts negatively in rooting out such problems. Nevertheless, these episodes must be grounded in the stages of research process itself.

Fraud during research process

Generally, five stages of research viz., conception of research ideas, experimentation and data generation, reporting of results, dissemination and publication, and evaluation and peer reviewing have been recognised. The correct or ethical codes of such stages vary from discipline to discipline based on the very objective of the research. A generalized list of 'normal' and 'deviant' behaviours of research process is presented by Chubin (1985). However, he added that implicit in each normal behaviour is thoroughly interpersonal. The various causes enumerated earlier exerts enormous pressure over a scientist to deviate from the normal process of research to commit scientific frauds. Many a time, the person who commits such frauds are conscientious, willful, overcompetitive and avaricious of their acts during the research process. Nevertheless, the same process that makes the deviant behaviour also intensify the scientist to be more prudent and review critically of other's works, increasing the chances to avoid scientific frauds (Zuckerman, 1984).

Conception of initial ideas

Research process originates from a clear understanding of past work, conception of new ideas or rediscovery of old hypothesis. One gets these ideas from various sources. First, during interactions in the professional gatherings, remarks in the scientific literature, questions raised in one's own research, etc. Yet the owner of the idea is hardly credited. Second, as a serious deviation from ethics, some times, one may also copy others ideas. This usually happens during peer reviewing of research proposals, where a scientists get a chance to see others ideas which have not yet been published. By offering a lesser grading, the reviewer often gets an undue advantage of using it in a modified way. This is as serious as stealing. As a third source, there are people who instead of stealing the ideas, they derive their ideas from others mistakes as they consider 'discovery consists of seeing what others have seen and thinking what others have not thought' (Albert Sczent Gyorgyui cited by Heath, 1989). However, with commendable honesty rarely one would be ready to acknowledge. Finally, the pressure for a scientist to get a 'bigbuck' grant insists a scientist to go for a more mundane works, yet fundable rather an intellectually exciting problem. The choice of selecting a problem to a greater extent depends upon the sponsor's influence, which hinders the creativity and interests of a scientist further. It is unethical in the part of academic institution and Universities, where promotion is based mostly on the ability of mobilizing extramural funds rather than for high quality research.

Experimentation and data generation

Experimentation and data generation are the basic foundation for future results. Although disagreement about the interpretation of the data and doubts about the methodology are common, seldom honesty of the data is questioned (Heath, 1989). This implicit faith along with expediency in producing papers, demonstrating a technique or supporting a self-postulated hypothesis, fear or lack of confidence in free expression of the results in a learned forum, etc., tempt the researchers to falsify the data (Knight, 1984), which is of course definitely well out side the ethical boundary of science.

Falsification of data is done in two ways: First, whole sale fabrication of data, which a pathological liar does, even though fully aware of committing fraud. However, explicit whole sale fabrication of data is not always common. Second, 'fudging' the data, that is deliberately done by the researchers in getting his theory accepted expediently. As defined by Heath (1989), fudging is making the data to favour certain outcome or for a preconceived idea or more clear-cut than justified. This desperate act of 'trimming' has been observed since long back. Even scientific heroes like Galileo, Mendel and Newton were said to 'massage' their raw results into confirmation of their pet theories (Franklin, 1981). Although this neither tarnish the image of these heroes nor indicts science of that day but reminds us the community standards that prevailed over the periods. However, unfortunately this problem though prevalent everywhere, is considered not as ethical as others.

Using others data diligently in development of a new theory is considered as lesser evil even though it is a blatant dishonest. The Nobel laureates James Watson and Francis Crick have used some of Rosalind Franklin's X-ray diffraction data during their efforts to elucidate the helicoidal structure of DNA (Watson, 1968). It is also hardly possible to avoid the influence of newer data while peer reviewing the scientist thinking (Heath, 1989).

Another area where professional ethics are often violated is the manipulation of experimental animals. Many western countries have codified legislation against this, however, there is always a place for differing the ethical perspectives. No rational discussions was possible between those at extremes because of the emotions and hypocrisy of the on the issue of experimentation (Regan, 1983; Horton, 1988).

Reporting of results

Errors and weaknesses in research may not be perceptible until the generated data are analyzed (Heath, 1989). Reporting research results is a premeditated act steeped in conventions for selecting and presenting information (Chubin, 1985).

Errors during reporting occurs due to unawareness of the literature, which is of course pardonable as there is no explicit violation of ethics. More over, to a major extent, this is attributed to the failure of laboratory chiefs, research guides or professors in equipping the unit under them with latest information. Unawareness of literature will also create a situation of redundancy of work and unnecessary labour involvement. On the other hand, 'culling' statements from the literature, 'misquoting and non representation' of supporting literature, 'cooking' data for a preconceived result and consequently claiming 'hyperbole in knowledge' are gross 'hoodwinking' of the receiving end. Many readers might not be able to deduce these as ethics are a matter of self regulation.

Another major factor that influences the reporting of results is the 'sponsors influence.' Whether it is government or private agency, researchers are always under tremendous pressure, while interpreting the data as they do not want to make their sponsors look bad, because of the fear of loosing 'bigbuck' grants.

Nonetheless, the results have to be reported objectively with critical discussion, lest it be negative as this will strengthen the work in the peers view. The aim here has to be carrying the message to those who are interested including the not knowledgeable in the discipline.

Dissemination and publication

For most researchers, particularly for those who are in the early days of their career, this stage is the ultimate stage. Hence in building up one's career more expeditiously, there is a tendency to go for more number of shorter papers than one comprehensive publication. Furthermore, in most academic institutions / Universities promotion is based on the number of publications, which exert pressure on a scientist to beat the others in the competitive race. The term 'least publishable units' has been in vogue among the scientific community since the near past. In spite of this being an easier measure to quantify the performance of a scientist, it will also develop minimalist tendency among them (Broad, 1982). Further, the multiple authorship will counteract against fixing limited number of papers (e.g. ten for full professor) (Heath, 1989). In fact recently an article published in the field of Medicine has 175 co-authors (NEJM 330: 956-961(1994)) (Berenbaum, 1994), which would probably more than the sample size of the experiment itself!

Other violations from the ethics during publication include lack of acknowledgement or non attribution of collaborators and author's deceit in simultaneous multiple submission to journals in order to publish as quick as possible. Not acknowledging those who are involved in the research process is the fundamental breach of professional etiquette although does not concerned with ethics. A pathological liar willfully fabricate the citation by quoting an non-existence journal and author, which a peer reviewer be negligent of and 'footdragging' in supplying the editor with raw data. From the peer's part, it is cheating to pirate the data and ideas of other scientist. This occurs particularly during grant review process. From the journal's part, it would be unethical to have 'default assumption' about the honesty of a 'cherished' scientist or 'elite' authors from 'prestigious' laboratories in accepting papers 'blindly' (Harnas, 1982; La Follette, 1984 & 1985). After all publications are considered as the mirror of the laboratories.

In publication process, there is an interesting additional question posed by Christman (1985): Having completed a work of a publishable character and reasonably high quality, does a scientist have any obligation to publish for the benefit of the wider audience? Apparently it seems to answer 'yes'. But Nelkin (1984) pointed out that if the work was supported by a private enterprise and propriety rights are involved, one has a case of opposing values: the right of a company to protect its secrets from competitors which is in fact conflicting with the scientific tradition of open communication. Then, does publication alone mirror the performance of a scientist?

Evaluation and peer reviewing

Evaluation and peer reviewing of a research project is often done by fairly senior people in a laboratory. Papers and projects sent for peer reviewing are privileged communications. It is necessary to keep them confidentially and the peers should not use those information in any form. Although this is a tacit and unwritten rule for the reviewers, it is not uncommon among the scientists to interpret the results differently from the original presenter and claim to be their own work. Generally the peer reviewers happens either to be a well known author or scientists from prestigious institutions, which makes victim helpless. 'Can one call this act as criminalisation of science?' It is also not uncommon to get ideas from the incumbent students during the 'dry run' seminars of the laboratories and making the pet students to work on the project as 'robbing Paul to pay Peter'.

Evaluation process also includes guiding graduate students objectively. As suggested by Heath (1989), an ethical professor / laboratory chief should guide the students complete a project at a reasonable time, avoid exploiting the students by assigning routine mundane tasks that would curtail creativity and interest, provide encouragement and constructive criticisms and most importantly guard the students from inter faculty politics.

Apart from these general ethics discussed here, there are other ethical issues for the scientists to be followed during their career. A scientist, during his career, is really caught between his own 'self', the devil with which he / she wants to leap expediently and the deep-blue-sea, the surrounding environment, the working place from where he does not want to lose his job. As mentioned earlier, professional ethics is a matter of self regulation and can not be controlled by extra-scientific personas and legislation. Nevertheless, it is the collective responsibility of the academic institutions / Universities / knowledge producing organizations, professional scientific societies, the scholarly press and by and large the scientist himself to instill such ethics. Is that why, the Judeo-Christianity teaches us to pray: Our father ...; Lead me not in to temptation but deliver me from evil...; Amen!?


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Please send comments to Email < Macer@biol.tsukuba.ac.jp >.

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