Sluts, manipulators, wrong

About the lack of honesty of the researchers

Scientists are only human, and when they do research, like everyone else, they make mistakes. Sloppy work happens all the time, but some people sign their name to articles they don’t really know the content of, others change their research approach because funders like it, or ignore data because it doesn’t fit the desired outcome. The leaders even falsify the results.

Scientific studies enjoy a high credibility. The published results should be comprehensible, actually worked out by the stated authors themselves, and nothing should be concealed. Science should have integrity, researchers should be unbiased and incorruptible, all study data should be available. This is the claim that is in the room. In fact, there have always been cases of manipulation, intellectual theft and falsehood in the history of science.

Sluts, manipulate, false

Already the astronomer Ptolemaus is said to have falsified data

Recently, the fact that in Germany well-known scientists in the field of health got their studies paid by the tobacco industry attracted much attention. Leading heads of the research enterprise skimmed off gross sums for their investigations until the early nineties. As reported by Der Spiegel, the cigarette companies did not donate altruistically: They wanted to instrumentalize the researchers in order to play down the dangers of smoking – this is proven by internal company documents. Martina Potschke-Langer, head of the World Health Organization’s Center for Tobacco Control in Heidelberg, Germany, reacted with horror:

It is particularly reprehensible that health scientists, of all people, have allowed themselves to be bought by the tobacco industry, thus ignoring the premature death from tobacco of hundreds of thousands of Germans.

Already Ptolomaus stole data

Scientists are under tremendous prere to produce results. This has always been the case, and with it there is always the temptation to help out where one’s own research does not prove what has been hypothesized. Already Ptolemaus (around 85 to ca. 165 n. Chr.), is said to have described observations never made and to have stolen results from his colleague Hipparchus.

There is no lack of outstanding examples in the history of science. The British psychologist Sir Cyril Burt is considered by many to be the world champion of recent times, who is said to have substantiated his intelligence studies with fictitious data (The intelligence fraud). The controversy over these falsehoods continues to this day, but at least Burt simply made up the names of assistants who served as co-authors (The Cyril Burt Affair).

Intellectual honesty did not always distinguish German researchers either. Legendary is the scandal in cancer research, the so-called "Sundenfall of the German research". In 1997 it came out that the professors Friedhelm Herrmann and Marion Brach had manipulated data for their studies on a large scale (Task Force: Discrepancies also in the environment of Friedhelm Herrmann).

The physicist Jan Hendrik Schon, who was already considered a potential candidate for the Nobel Prize when discrepancies arose in 2002 in the many articles he published in an almost weekly rhythm on supposedly new research results (Schon fooled science), also achieved sad fame.

His spectacular discoveries turned out to be incomprehensible, pure lies and deception. Renowned scientific journals had to retract his texts and finally, in 2004, the doctorate was withdrawn because, according to the University of Konstanz "who, by his later behavior, proved the holder of the degree to be unworthy of it" (Last Act in Scientific Fraud Scandal).

Physicist Jan Hendrik Schon

Last but not least, the Frankfurt anthropologist Reiner Protsch von Zieten should be mentioned in this series, who, according to the report of an investigative commission, repeatedly manipulated or even falsified scientific facts for 30 years. Protsch has retired in the meantime, his dating of human skulls is being examined. The university apologized publicly to all those who were harmed by him (Protsch case: Prasidium draws consequences).

The former professor is in a legal battle with the university. The end of the story, however, has already come at least for the Frankfurt Institute of Anthropology and Genetics, which Protsch used to head. It was closed in April 2005 (Protocol of a Scientific Thriller).

Lesser and greater offenses

Reporting in the current ie of the science journal Nature, Brian C. Martinson of the Health Partners Research Foundation in Minneapolis, and Melissa S. Anderson and Raymond de Vries of the University of Minnesota on scientists who behave badly. The authors’ goal is to look behind the scenes, to illuminate the circumstances, and to encourage changes in the scientific enterprise to better eliminate misconduct.

When researchers don’t work with integrity, it hurts reputation and public support for science. The rules are actually known to all and in the USA there has been a clear definition of scientific misconduct by the US Office of Science and Technology Policy since 2000 under the three keywords fabrication, falsification and theft of intellectual property (Federal Policy on Research Misconduct).

But these guidelines are of limited help, because the gross misrepresentations and plagiarisms are only the tip of an iceberg, which contains many small misrepresentations for a wide variety of reasons. The questionable everyday practices should be better controlled in the future.

Martinson’s team sent out more than 7500 questionnaires to U.S. scientists at various career levels in the health care field. Anonymity was guaranteed, and among those who could not be reached by mail, almost half of those contacted responded. With the help of experts, realistic questions were designed, divided into a top 10 section with misconduct patterns that would result in sanctions and another section with less serious offenses.

Slut, manipulate, fake

One-third of the scientists surveyed said they had experienced misconduct from the top 10 at least once in recent years "committed" to have. Severe misconduct such as plagiarism or genuine falsehoods was admitted by only less than two percent each time. Six percent confessed to withholding data because it contradicted their own previous research findings, and 15.5 percent confessed to changing their own research approach at the request of funders. The situation is also very bleak in the area of data archiving, with 27.5 percent having difficulty actually making the data they use available.

Overall, the picture that emerges from the survey is frightening. More than a quarter of the researchers say they are sloppy with scientific data, and as many as 1.5 percent commit intellectual theft. Martinson and colleagues conclude that more light should be let into the darkness of working conditions in the ivory towers:

So far, little attention has been paid to the wider research environment in terms of threats to scientific integrity. It is now time for the scientific community to assess which aspects of the environment have particular significance for research integrity and which aspects could be particularly easy to change, as well as which changes were likely to be particularly valuable in ensuring the integrity of science.