I promise never to allow financial gain, competitiveness or ambition cloud my judgment in the conduct of ethical research and scholarship. I will pursue knowledge and create knowledge for the greater good, but never to the detriment of colleagues, supervisors, research subjects or the international community of scholars of which I am now a member.
Scientific misconduct is very expensive, leading to years of wasted research dollars and effort in pursuit of a scientific mirage, and it damages the public’s perception of the value of science to society. Not only that, but the personal and professional costs to those closest to it are tremendous; whistle-blowers often lose everything and, if their scientific career somehow survives, it will always bear the scars, as revealed by Allegra Goodman in her excellent book, Intuition. In response to what appears to be a growing problem, a group of people at the Institute of Medical Science at University of Toronto in Canada wrote a scientist’s version of the Hippocratic oath. This oath (above) was recited by all graduate students in the biological sciences at the beginning of the 2007-2008 academic year.
But what is scientific misconduct? The US federal definition of research misconduct defines it as “fabrication, falsification or plagiarism in proposing, performing or reviewing research, or in reporting research results.” As an undergraduate in microbiology, a research technician in cancer research, and a graduate student in zoology, I frequently participated in long and detailed discussions of scientific ethics, both with my fellow graduate students as well as with more senior scientists. As a result, I developed a strong sense of right and wrong in the practice of scientific research.
Perhaps it was just my educational experiences, but I don’t think that there was much scientific misconduct occurring in academics when I was a student. I have not spent much time in medical research, but again, during the two years that I did work in a medical research lab, I was surrounded by people who had a very strong sense of professional ethics. Was I blind or just lucky? Has scientific misconduct become so rampant these days that we now must take oaths to protect the integrity of science from the pretenders among us? Will merely repeating a verbal oath protect science from those who would otherwise cheat for gain? Don’t you think that, if a person is already unethical, reciting a “Hippocratic oath for scientists” would probably not alter his behavior? In view of the corruption so zealously demonstrated by American politicians (who also take an oath before serving in public office), it seems to me that an oath does little to dissuade people from misbehaving.
In short, I think that if there truly is corruption in “science”, it is because of the corporatization of science and of science education. In the corporate business model that we are all familiar with, no one individual accepts repsonsibility for anything, including the behavior of the business itself. Just as there is no personal accountability in Big Pharma for inadequate and shoddy clinical trials, there also is no personal responsibility in universities for accepting too many aspiring researchers into life science PhD programs.
This lack of personal responsibility is due to unrestrained greed combined with a tremendous disparity in power and income: CEOs, CFOs and stockholders in businesses can be compared to university presidents, departmental deans and individual professors in academics. All have contributed heavily to the overall degradation of scientific ethics. Corporatization of both universities and businesses creates an atmosphere where individuals are no longer responsible their behavior and how their choices affects the lives of others, because dishonesty and greed are financially rewarded instead of scholarship and ethical behavior, and because a small number of individuals can and do earn 200 times more income than anyone else within the business or university.
NOTE: rewritten 24 June to clarify the points that seem to be causing confusion.
Titus, S.L., Wells, J.A., Rhoades, L.J. (2008). Repairing research integrity. Nature, 453(7198), 980-982. DOI: 10.1038/453980a.
(2008). Solutions, not scapegoats. Nature, 453(7198), 957-957. DOI: 10.1038/453957a.