Monday, December 31, 2012

20% of Scientists are Crooks

At university in both "Introduction to Criminology" and the "Senior Seminar in Criminolgy", our professor, Liqun Cao,  liked to cite an easy claim of “twenty percent.”  For instance: 20% of goods on the market have no clear title.  The exact numbers did not matter and neither did the specific study or survey.  The teaching point was that criminality is not unusual.  Heinous crimes are rare.  Daily harms are all too frequent – and we all engage in one or another of them whether speeding or padding expense accounts.  So, too, in science is it important to realize that fraud and misconduct in research are not rare.
Book cover FALSE PROPHETS by Alexander KohnFalse Prophets: Fraud and Error in Science and Medicine by Alexander Kohn (Oxford: Basil Blackwell: 1986), is a classic work that remains important. It sets a baseline for understanding fraud and misconduct in research.  Kohn repeats famous cases such as Margaret Mead, Robert Millikan, and Trofim D. Lysenko.  He also tells of N-rays, the Allison Effect, the Davis and Barnes Effect,, and polywater. From there, Kohn focuses on his special interest, clinical research.  The book closes with chapters on broad and deep issues in ethics and science. Kohn offers no solutions.  He does say that whistleblowers should not be fired. He also quotes a university ethicist who cautions scientists not to engage in any research activity that they would not commit as laity.  That is largely unsatisfactory, especially as this philosopher (Prof. Michael Riese, then of the University of Guelph) calls ethics “a shared illusion of the human race.” I believe that a more objective standard is required.

Marshall Thomsen of Eastern Michigan University has been teaching “Ethical Issues in Physics” for over twenty years.  A search of “ethics physics” and similar items will return citations to Dr. Thomsen’s work at websites from the Illinois Institute of Technology, the University of Illinois, the University of Massachusetts, and Physics Today, among many more. When I had the class, he was on sabbatical and our professor was Patrick Koehn.  The class also has been taught by Prof. Mary Elizabeth Kubitskey. Dr. Kubitskey’s master’s thesis was Teaching Ethics in a High School Physics Class.

The Office of Research Integrity of the US Department of Health and Human Services investigates and acts on cases of fraud in research when federal grant money is involved.  You can find Case Summaries, ethics tutorials, an interactive video “The Lab”, and much more here.

What remedies are available when private money rather than public funds are at stake?  I believe that revocation of the university degree can be appropriate.  See my paper here.

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