"15.5% said they had changed the design, methodology or results of a study in response to pressure from a funding source; 12.5% admitted overlooking others' use of flawed data..." (item 1)
"These competing interests are very important," said Dr Smith. "It has quite a profound influence on the conclusions and we deceive ourselves if we think science is wholly impartial." (item 2)
One in three scientists confesses to having sinned
Misconduct ranges from faking results outright to dropping suspect data points.
Nature 435, 718-719 (9 June 2005) | doi: 10.1038/435718b
More than a third of US scientists, in a survey of thousands, have admitted to misbehaving in the past three years. The social scientists who carried out the study of research misconduct warn that because attention is focused on high-profile, serious cases, a broader threat from more minor deeds is being missed.
Their conclusions may hit a nerve, particularly among scientific societies in the United States. Throughout the 1990s, these groups fought to limit their government's definition of misconduct and the types of behaviour it is responsible for policing.
Brian Martinson of the HealthPartners Research Foundation in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and his colleagues mailed an anonymous survey to thousands of scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health. They asked the scientists whether they were guilty of misbehaviours ranging from falsifying data to inadequate record keeping.
Of 3,247 early- and mid-career researchers who responded, less than 1.5% admitted to falsification or plagiarism, the most serious types of misconduct listed. But 15.5% said they had changed the design, methodology or results of a study in response to pressure from a funding source; 12.5% admitted overlooking others' use of flawed data; and 7.6% said they had circumvented minor aspects of requirements regarding the use of human subjects (see page 737).
Overall, about a third admitted to at least one of the ten most serious offences on the list ”” a range of misbehaviours described by the authors as "striking in its breadth and prevalence".
But Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, cautions against concluding that the structure of science is corroded. He points out that dropping an outlying data point is not the same as plagiarizing a paper.
"I don't mean to say that the problems identified don't merit deliberation and a response," he says. "But there may be a tendency if you just read the headlines to say, 'Oh my goodness, the ethical house of science is collapsing around us'."
Martinson counters that, although individual cases may not be as serious as fraud, the survey reveals a threat to the integrity of science that is not captured by narrow definitions of misconduct. "The majority of misbehaviours reported to us are more corrosive than explosive," he says. "That makes them no less damaging."
He thinks the main cause of all the questionable behaviour is the increasing pressure that scientists are under as they compete to publish papers and win grants. "We need to think about the working conditions in science that can be addressed," he says, suggesting better salaries and employment conditions for young scientists, and a more transparent peer-review process.
He is at pains to stress that he does not think governments should expand regulation of scientific behaviour. And when it was shown Martinson's study, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, based in Bethesda, Maryland, was quick to reiterate its support for the narrow definition of misconduct that was officially agreed in 2000.
"The US government adopted 'fabrication, falsification and plagiarism' as the defining criteria, a policy with which we concur," says Paul Kincade, the federation's president. That means the government cannot investigate or punish any behaviours outside that definition.
In 2002, scientific societies led by the federation and the Washington-based Association of American Medical Colleges fought a government office's plan to collect data on such behaviours (see Nature 420, 739?740; 2002). The societies argued such monitoring should be the responsibility of scientists themselves.
Martinson and his colleagues say their study is the first attempt to quantify such activities. They hope their results will persuade scientists to stop ignoring the wider range of misbehaviour.
Scientists 'asked to fix results for backer'
Liz Lightfoot / London Telegraph 14feb00
ONE in three scientists working for Government quangos or newly privatised laboratories says he has been asked to adjust his conclusions to suit his sponsor.
Contracting out and the commercialisation of scientific research are threatening standards of impartiality, scientists claim. The survey was conducted by the union representing research scientists, which is campaigning against further privatisation of public laboratories.
The Institute of Professionals, Managers and Specialists says that public safety could be harmed by the Government's plans to bring private funding into the National Air Traffic Services and the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. Privatisations over the last few years have included the Radio Chemical Centre, now Nycomed Amersham Laboratories, and the Atomic Energy Authority, which trades as AEA Technology.
Charles Harvey, the institute's spokesman, said an increasing number of scientists had privately raised concerns with the union so it had decided to include a question about the influence of sponsors in a survey about pay and conditions. Thirty per cent of the 500 respondents said they had been asked to tailor their research conclusions or resulting advice.
The figure included 17 per cent who had been asked to change their conclusions to suit the customer's preferred outcome, 10 per cent who said they had been asked to do so to obtain further contracts and three per cent who claimed they had been asked to make changes to discourage publication.
"Some were working for quangos and some for fully privatised laboratories," said Mr Harvey. "The piper is calling the tune and it raises worrying issues. We have seen the BSE crisis, food scares and the the GMO debacle and the public is losing confidence in Government as an independent, fair-minded arbiter."
Scientists should be given the right to publish their research instead of having to get permission from the sponsors, he said. Concern over pressure brought to bear on medical researchers has prompted the British Medical Journal to insist that authors declare their source of funding and whether they have any "competing interests".
They must fill in a form declaring, for example, whether they have been paid to lecture or attend symposiums by companies connected with their work, or hold shares in them. Richard Smith, editor of the journal, said the policy had been formally introduced because of evidence that the authors of reviews of research evidence were influenced by those who commissioned them to do the work.
Research into the funding of 10 papers on the alleged blood clotting risk of the third generation contraceptive pills found those funded by the pharmaceutical industry had discovered no risk, whereas those with other sources of funding claimed there was, he said.
Recent American research had also discovered links between studies which found passive smoking was not dangerous and the tobacco industry.
"These competing interests are very important," said Dr Smith. "It has quite a profound influence on the conclusions and we deceive ourselves if we think science is wholly impartial."