Erosion of trust

Acts of faked or misrepresented scientific and technical data, falsified professional credentials, misidentification of authorship, and plagiarism are neither contemporary inventions, nor limited to any one research field or national research system.712 When problems have been uncovered, scientists around the world tend to act much the same: they characterise the offender as "aberrant", the episode as isolated, and the behaviour as probably prompted by stress, bad judgment, moral corruption, or all three. Only a few of the most notorious and sensational episodes before the 1970s are well-documented (such as the Piltdown skull forgery);8'12 many allegations "survive" primarily in participants' memories or in the gossip of particular science departments. We have all listened to such stories handed around with the after-dinner coffee.

Until the 1980s, these tales remained largely within the family, receiving only intermittent attention from journalists. Even the first instance of fabricated data to receive significant public attention in the US, the William T Summerlin case, simmered only briefly in the headlines.13 In 1974, Summerlin was working on skin cancer at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, investigating the use of tissue culture to facilitate genetically incompatible skin transplants. Before a meeting with the Center's director, Summerlin apparently darkened grafts on two white mice to imply greater success in his experiments than they warranted. When confronted about his actions, Summerlin claimed that "mental and physical exhaustion", institutional pressure "to publicize the research", and "an unbearable clinical and experimental load" had "numbed" his judgment.13 An investigating committee later concluded that he had lied about his research progress and fabricated supporting evidence, and eventually dismissed him from staff, but not without praising his "personal qualities of warmth and enthusiasm".13

This episode of the "painted mouse" contained several aspects common to subsequent high-profile cases: research with immediate salience to the audience; a popular scientist and/or powerful supporters; claims of momentary misjudgment or unusual stress; and an ambiguous resolution. Accused scientists sometimes maintained their jobs (and salaries) for years while institutional investigations dragged on; and the penalties, even for those proven to have committed fraud, were linked to loss of status (for example, directorships of laboratories or potential for tenure) and ability to participate in the life of science (for example, service on committees), rather than to substantial monetary fines, imprisonment, or loss of credentials.

As with most social and political change in the American democracy, media attention eventually served as the spotlight, drawing politicians like moths to a flame. The case that stimulated much of this increased publicity involved John Darsee, an up-and-coming researcher with prestigious mentors and affiliations (Emory University, Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, and Harvard Medical School).14 The nature of the research involved (a multi-investigator, multi-institutional cardiology study funded by the National Institutes of Health [NIH]) helped to make the episode front page news in 1981, and although the primary allegations focused on data fabrication, the case also introduced a new cause for concern. Darsee had listed co-authors on many of his published articles, some of whom had not participated directly in the research described and were therefore given "honorary co-authorship". This practice had become standard in many laboratories, and none of the co-authors had objected when the articles were published, although most disavowed responsibility for the content after questions were raised. Two gadflies, biologists Ned Feder and Walter Stewart, used the Darsee case to draw attention to the ethics of authorship and to the editorial policies of scientific journals.15 The case emphasised that each breach of integrity could have a negative impact on dozens, possibly hundreds, of other researchers. In the next phase of the controversy, it became clear that high-profile cases might even influence the public reputation of science overall.

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