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Misconduct in Science

March 23, 1994



REPORTS of fudged data in a major breast-cancer study highlight the need to get tough on scientific misconduct and fraud.

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The scientific community in the United States has danced indecisively around this issue for decades. So have the responsible agencies of the federal government.

It's been two years since the National Academies of Science and Engineering and the Institute of Medicine issued their ``Responsible Science'' report urging the science community to adopt clear standards and procedures for dealing with scientific misconduct and fraud. The report asked for an ethical environment for research scientists and their students to learn and follow sound practices.

These academies have now issued a new joint statement chiding the scientific community for failing to implement the report's recommendations. It seems there is a reluctance to crack down on offending colleagues.

Meanwhile, the federal government has itself failed to deal with misconduct in the research it sponsors. It has failed to provide researchers accused of misconduct with the safeguards of ``due process'' and the presumption of ``innocent until proved guilty.'' The accused have been unable to submit evidence on their own behalf or confront hostile witnesses under oath in proceedings that resulted in such discipline as denial of research funding.

Scientists have been subjected to ``trial'' by publicity and congressional hearings, and have been pilloried without what amounts to due process.

The most celebrated case is that of Tufts University molecular biologist Thereza Imanishi-Kari. For seven years, various agencies of the Department of Health and Human Services have investigated charges that she faked data in a joint paper. The Office of Research Integrity (ORI), which now has the case, has yet to issue a final report. When it does, the accused can appeal to a review board that will apply standard courtroom rules of evidence.

The review broad recently reversed three other ORI findings; the agency dropped a fourth case. In one instance, it was found that the alleged fraud was only a typographical error.

The US needs a tightly defined standard of what constitutes legally actionable scientific misconduct. It also needs a formal mechanism, set up at the highest agency level, for investigating such misconduct and for determining guilt, which will provide full ``due process'' safeguards.

Meanwhile, universities and other research institutions should get on with implementing the academies' recommendations. Sweeping misconduct under the rug is a blot on the scientific community.