Ethics Post

I felt dirty reading the list of ORI updates, like looking at a list of mugshots. I was looking at what would likely be the advertised scientists’ greatest shame of their lives. It makes me wonder what chain of events led them to commit such nasty, life-altering mistakes. Did they have a concrete intention of committing fraud? Did they realize what they were doing mid-way down that path and want to turn back? Did they try to do the right thing at any point?

In considering the causality, I noticed that all five of the “featured” researchers were involved in biomedical research (Tataroglu, Neumeister, Yakkanti, Malhotra, and Potts Kant), which seems too unlikely to be pure coincidence. In fact, all five had received National Institues of Health (NIH) funding, four of five US Public Health Service (PHS) funding, and two had even specifically had National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) funding. What about this kind of research could lead to a higher incidence of ethical transgression in research?

My thoughts are almost fully speculation, but I did spend two years (one year full time) working and researching in a biomedical lab to give me some perspective of the research experience in this field. First, it is cut-throat. I’m sure everyone is aware that the road to being a medical doctor is a very competitive one. Having attended a heavily pre-med school, I saw the accuracy of future doctors’ reputations as intense and hell-bent on being the best. Personality tendencies compounded with the fact that, at least in the US, spots at medical schools are extremely limited, so competition was innate in the field. One of the guilty researchers was a medical doctor. As far as those in biomedical research but not MD’s, my anecdotal experience has been that many who went into biomedical research were originally pre-med and had similar dispositions to those who went to med school; they just instead turned their sights on the research aspect of the health field. So, I wonder if a culture of intense competition and need to prove oneself as the best has driven researchers toward cheating.

Additionally, biomedical research Takes. A long. Time. I don’t even mean years, I mean decades. This extended time span of studies is actually part of the reason I got out of that field. It sounded exhausting. It also sounded risky. What if eight years down the road you find that your pharmaceutical breakthrough will never be compatible with humans? Well then that’s it, all those years wasted. So, fear might have driven these researchers to exaggerate their findings. Also, frustration and fatigue might have driven them to give their findings a bit of a “boost” that might allow them to accelerate the slow, plodding, laborious nature often typifying such research.

2 Replies to “Ethics Post”

  1. Thank you for your insight on the medical field through your use of personal testimony. I think it is interesting that you mentioned that medical research takes a long time and it is competitive. The former can make a researcher impatient especially if they feel like they have invested so much time in their research and not getting anywhere. The latter can also drive people to desperate and potentially unethical measures. I think as a society we have to look at the pressures we put on our higher education students and whether or not our expectations hinder them instead of challenging them to be better. Changing the culture is the first important step to ending these unfortunate ethical violations we see in research.

  2. Your first-hand experience offers such an interesting perspective to be able to speak to when it comes to the kind of culture competitive environments cultivate in labs. This was interesting in that you can offer speculation into how culture may play a role in these ethical violation cases.

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