Crack Down on Sloppy Research

A CONSENSUS is emerging in the United States that it's time to do something effective about fraud and misconduct in scientific research. At the heart of that consensus is the conviction that research institutions themselves must take prime responsibility for correcting abuses. They are best able to set and monitor faculty, staff, and students. They can instill a sense of individual responsibility for ethical behavior, a lack of which is the root cause of research fraud.

Indeed, the main conclusion of a new study of scientific misconduct by the Institute of Medicine - sister organization to the National Academy of Sciences - is that research organizations must do more to help their scientists take this responsibility. The report notes that some of the data fakers have ``denied that their practices were wrong or substandard, often using the expression that `everyone does it.'''

Many scientists still take comfort in the notion that research fraud is an aberration, unrelated to the normal way they do business. They're kidding themselves. The Institute of Medicine explains that outright fraud is a small part of the problem. It's more concerned about widespread ``sloppy or careless research practices and [ethical] apathy.'' It is these that threaten to erode the quality of the research environment in the long run.

High on the list of ``sloppy'' practices is the inability of researchers to set a good example. Senior scientists and team leaders too often fail to provide ethical role models and to supervise the work of juniors adequately. One of the worst examples is the multiple authorship of research papers where some of the authors have little to do with the work and can't vouch for its integrity.

Scientists are in double jeopardy. There is ethical corrosion from within, and a growing threat of governmental regulation from without. Scientists should face their ethical challenges squarely. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain by cleaning up their own act as fast as they can.

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