Following ethical standards: A responsibility, and not a choice

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.

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6 Responses to Following ethical standards: A responsibility, and not a choice

  1. glupton says:

    I really appreciate your summary at the end! I do find it scary that research in biomedical and clinical science has so many known cases of unethical data manipulation. Just image how many cases exist that are unknown (or the data was so well manipulated that it would be extraordinarily difficult to spot). This scares me because that data is used to make decisions about medical practices. I’d very much prefer drugs, treatments, and procedures be based on good research data than the alternative.

    To your final paragraph, I find it confusing that more research isn’t published (especially with large, valid datasets) that doesn’t fully support a hypothesis. That seems like REALLY important data and findings to me. By not using those findings it causes other researchers to continue down “dead end” paths instead of using their time and expertise to find a better way.

  2. Valeska says:

    I really enjoyed reading your post. For my post, I also did an overview of the cases, and I was also surprised by the number of cases on falsification of data and the institutions involved. I support your idea of including sessions on research ethics in conferences/symposiums/workshops. I think in those sessions or courses, the instructor should include real cases because if students/professionals don’t see real-life cases, people won’t believe this is a really big problem in research nowadays.

  3. sptiller says:

    Thanks for your post! I definitley like your suggestion that research advisor should play a larger role in ethics education. I wonder if altering systemic preassure might help as well. I think you want a scientific culture where not finding something is just as exciting as finding something, where failing to attain statistical significance is still celebrated.

  4. Ayda says:

    Thanks for your analytical post and ethical summary. It was also surprising for me why falsification of data usually takes place in clinical sciences. This issue (high rate of fabricating data in this area) made me realize that maybe all those published reports about research misconducts on “ORI” were not completely purposefully. So, sometimes it could be hard to recognize an intentional falsification from unintended one.

  5. aydakianmehr says:

    Thanks for your analytical post and ethical summary. It was also surprising for me why falsification of data usually takes place in clinical sciences. This issue (high rate of fabricating data in this area) made me realize that maybe all those published reports about research misconducts on “ORI” were not completely purposefully. So, sometimes it could be hard to recognize an intentional falsification from unintended one.

  6. sofrgp says:

    Thank you for sharing this blog with us. I agree with @glupton. Misconduct on Biomedical and clinical science are becoming popular now a days. However, I am not convinced that mandatory ethics courses would solve the problem. For me, it is more a personal decision and to be conscious on what are the consequences of any type of misconduct.

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