For my second blog post on “Ethics in research”, I rather choose to express my broad overview of research ethics instead of commenting on a specific case study. What I understood from my reading of most of the case summaries presented in the ORI (Office of Research Integrity) scholarly integrity website is that the falsification of data is taking place at an alarmingly high rate in the field of basic biomedical and clinical sciences. Why is it that this happens more so often (than expected) in the field of biomedical and clinical sciences? I think the answer to this question is pretty straightforward as biomedical sciences is a wet lab science driven mainly by experimental results where there is a higher chance of scientists faking experimental data, unlike theoretical sciences where a theory can either be proved or disproved but cannot be fabricated or manipulated (although there might be exceptions to this). What surprised me though is that this kind of fraud is coming from labs of really well-established and knowledgeable scientists/professors in the field who do not need to do this. And what surprises me even more is that these are usually intentional mistakes and very rarely unintentional. So, what is driving them in doing so? Is it because of the stress due to competition from peers or is it a lapse in their fundamental training on research ethics or is it their conscience that allows them to compromise research integrity. Whatever the reason is, it is very unfortunate to see how research integrity is compromised more day by day, especially in the field of medicine which has a direct impact on public health.
So, what can we do to address this issue? Many schools already incorporate and mandate student enrollment in ethics coursework as a part of their academic curriculum. But how often are these traditional lecture classes taken seriously? I believe that it is the immediate academic advisor(s)/mentor(s) that play a significant role in the training of the fresh hires/students and that there should be more open discussions between them on related topics. Also, a global approach to this problem might be the incorporation of individual sessions on research ethics in all the conferences/symposiums/workshops at both the national and international levels to help both the academic advisors and trainees re-visit the ethical principles in their respective fields.
Further, in my opinion, students should be encouraged to conduct research more in lines of: Ask a question, make a hypothesis, design the experiment/have a robust experimental plan, produce statistically significant results, re-visit the hypothesis, and finally learn to explain the results rather than trying to validate the originally postulated hypothesis by unfair means. Most importantly, scientists should be trained to be more open-minded and learn to publish what they observe (observation-driven science) instead of trying to produce breakthrough results by hook or by crook.
In summary, it helps to think of what we are doing (be it any profession, not necessarily science) in a perspective of the greater good of humanity rather than looking at it merely as a career choice.