Asking the hard questions about why we act as we do

October 3, 2012

In the October 1, 2012 online issue of Proceeding of National Academy of Sciences, an article titled “Misconduct accounts for the majority of retracted scientific publications” reports that out of 2,047 biomedical and life-science research articles indexed by PubMed as retracted on May 3, 2012 (retracted articles represent “unequivocal evidence of project failure,” the authors say), only 21.3% of retractions were attributable to error. “In contrast, 67.4% of retractions were attributable to misconduct, including fraud or suspected fraud (43.4%), duplicate publication (14.2%), and plagiarism (9.8%).”

Put simply, the article’s co-authors say that more than two-thirds of scientific articles were retracted not because a scientist made an error, but because of knowing misconduct, especially the intentional deception of fraud.

The co-authors of the PNAS article go on to point out that retractions attributable to fraud have been on a “dramatic rise” in the last decade, and that “the recent increase in retractions for fraud cannot be attributed solely to an increase in the number of research publications. Retractions for fraud or suspected fraud as a percentage of total articles have increased nearly 10-fold since 1975.”

Why the dramatic rise? Increased scrutiny of scientific experiments and research findings; the spread of technology making plagiarism easier; and most of all, the co-authors say, the “disproportionate” financial and professional payoffs for publishing in prestigious venues “in the form of grants, jobs, and prizes at a time of research funding scarcity.”

This kind of scientific finding should give us all pause. In the case of biomedical research, especially, fraudulent findings could potentially have some very serious repercussions. The PNAS article co-authors suggest a number of remedial solutions including “an enhanced focus on ethics.” Fortunately, there are organizations like Indiana University’s Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions that exist to do just that — enhance our focus on ethics. One of the most established ethics centers in the United States, the Poynter Center celebrates its 40th anniversary this fall with a three-day symposium starting Oct. 10.

Founded in 1972, in the wake of IU alumnus Nelson Poynter’s dismay over Watergate, the Poynter Center has scrutinized ethical questions in a wide range of areas but research ethics has long been at the core of the center’s work. Kenneth Pimple is the director of the Poynter Center’s annual Teaching Research Ethics (TRE) workshop (and a senior advisor with the Ethics Collaborative Online Resource Environment, or Ethics CORE, an online ethics resource center funded by the National Science Foundation). Each year TRE provides training for those involved in teaching research ethics or in administering research programs through sessions on ethical theory, trainee and authorship issues, assessment and evaluation, responsible data management, integrity in research, conflict of interest, and international research.

Reflecting on why ethics breaches occur in research in an earlier interview with IU’s Research & Creative Activity magazine, Pimple said, “My general view of humanity is that most of us want to do the right thing most of the time. Most of us have an honest desire to do the best we can. The trouble is, we’re really awful at fulfilling that desire. We’re really skilled at convincing ourselves that the right thing and the expedient thing are identical. Our ability to rationalize our own behavior is incredible.”

The Poynter Center aims to examine and reshape interpretations of our human behaviors. “Whether the topic under scrutiny is health care, scientific research, politics, or religion,” says Rich Miller, the center’s current director, “the Poynter Center takes an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach to asking hard questions about why humans — as individuals or in groups — act as we do.”

For more on the Poynter Center and its 40th anniversary symposium and celebration, visit their website.

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