What is scientific misconduct?

Publiceret Oktober 2006

Selected examples from history are discussed to illustrate the many difficulties in judging scientific behavior. Scientific misconduct is not an a priori given concept but must first be defined. The definitions of scientific misconduct used in the USA and in Denmark are discussed as examples.

Denmark took a lead in the handling of scientific misconduct by establishing the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty in 1998. As a political consequence of the committees handling of the Lomborg case, the Danish legislature passed a new law for the committees which came into force from 1 August 2005. The new law has restricted the work of the committees.  It remains to be seen whether the Danish model is still a good solution for unveiling scientific fraud. The role of science journalism in unveiling fraud in the sciences is also discussed.

Good Conduct in the Sciences

A platform for serious scientific misconduct of an individual can develop when smaller irregularities are ignored by close colleagues and management. You may forget to report properly about the origins to your new idea or experiment, or you might give insufficient acknowledgement to other peoples work, or borrow a couple of sentences without quotation. If a researcher never has been introduced to basic rules for good scientific practice by responsible colleagues he may end up finding such minor offences natural and acceptable.

A state has laws for regulating the behaviour of its inhabitants, not necessarily with the intention of punishing people but in order to prevent undesired behaviour. Nevertheless crime – breaking the laws - does take place, and it is important for a civilized society to have a legal system to deal with crime in a proper way. In the same way, it is necessary with a legal system to handle scientific misconduct. It is too late to start thinking about misconduct when it appears, and it is too naïve to deny its existence.

Examples from History

Improper scientific behaviour is not a new phenomenon. History is rich of examples of scientists who acted outside the accepted standards of their profession [1].

The lesson from history that I hope to convey by the following examples is that it is a very difficult task to find agreeable and sensible attitudes to deal with misconduct in the sciences, but also that it is a very necessary one.

Was Darwin guilty of Misconduct in his ‘Origin of Species’?   

It is now and then asserted that the famous British naturalist Charles Darwin behaved improperly in his path breaking publication of 1859 ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’. The assertion is that Darwin found his key mechanism, the concept of ‘natural selection’, only when his countryman, the likewise eminent naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, sent Darwin a letter describing a theory about ‘biological evolution’, and that Darwin did not give sufficiently credit to Wallace for this. It is true that Darwin promptly sought to publicize the idea of ‘natural selection’ and that he arranged by himself a joint paper with Wallace of 1858, before publishing his own main publication in 1859. However, it should be said to the excuse of Darwin that he had been conducting his own research for twenty years and that his child died as he received Wallace’s letter from Indonesia, where he stayed at the time. Furthermore, Wallace always later referred to the concept of ‘natural selection’ as Darwin’s theory. There seems to have been no bad feelings between the two men and hence there are no reasons to think of Darwin’s behaviour in this matter as a case of scientific misconduct.

The discussion whether Darwin or Wallace should have the priority to the principle of ‘natural selection’ in the biological sciences is an example of  how misinformation over time can build up and support the attitude often found among scientists that “we are all sinners, even the greatest scientists”. In this connection it is interesting to note that more than 5 percent of American scientists answering a confidential questionnaire admitted to minor degrees of misconduct, according to an article in Nature [2] reporting that up to thirty percent of the scientists admitted to have acted at odds with good scientific practice.

There are good reasons to be on guard when a colleague shows signs of bad manners in the sciences. Senior scientists should consider it their duty to react on the spot - even if it is unpleasant - in order to prevent that it may later escalate into proper scientific misconduct.

The Discovery of the Double-Helix Structure of DNA

It is likely that the British molecular biologist Rosalind Elsie Franklin was the true discoverer of the double-helix structure of the DNA molecule for which her countrymen Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins together with the American geneticist and biophysicist James Watson received a Nobel Prize in 1962, four years after Franklin’s death from cancer at age 37. Franklin was employed by Wilkins to work on the project and developed the X-Ray crystallography necessary to take the famous photograph. It sat in her desk drawer until Wilkins informed Watson and Crick who removed it from the drawer, claimed it as their own and went public. Is this a case of fraud, plagiarism or the invisibility of women in science?

Inventions and the Sciences

The invention of the telephone is a famous example of seeming misconduct outside proper science as such [3]. Philip Reis, a German professor and inventor, developed the apparatus and demonstrated it to people. The American inventor Alexander Graham Bell appears to have witnessed a demonstration and rushed on to develop his own apparatus and to patent the idea on February 14, 1876. Bell had his patent registered just a few hours before Elisha Gray, another American inventor.  Elisha Gray and others sought to contest his priority but Bell was very shrewd, investing in a powerful team of lawyers to frighten the opposition.  

Improper appropriation of intellectual properties rightly belonging to others is a difficult problem to deal with in the sciences. In the case of the invention of the telephone it took the form of Bell patenting an invention apparently conceived during witnessing a demonstration by Reis. In other strenuous cases, wily researchers have written up papers based on material presented in lectures by others without any form of acknowledgements. It can be hard to prove such things unless it can be traced back to direct plagiarism. 

The Lysenko Affair

The Ukrainian Trofim Lysenko was an agricultural experimentalist without proper scientific training. During the serious agricultural crisis in the 1930s, he impressed the dictator in the former Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, by wild claims that he had discovered methods for growing crops without using fertilizers or minerals and under unfavourable conditions (vernalization). Lysenko twisted ideas of Lamarck and Darwin and developed biological theories in complete disagreement with theories by scientists outside the Soviet Union, but his theories fitted well into Stalin’s political conceptions that environmental factors rather than inheritance are decisive for growth and achievements. Henceforward Stalin made Lysenko chief of all biological sciences in the Soviet Union and Lysenko was awarded the highest signs of recognitions for his ‘achievements’. The experiments conducted by Lysenko, among others growing corn in Siberia, failed and caused very severe famine in Russia. Only after the death of Stalin in 1953 it was slowly officially recognized that Lysenko was a fraud - a fact which had been known to good Soviet biologists for years but could not be discussed openly during the Stalin regime. A detailed account of Lysenko’s catastrophic impact on the biological sciences in the former Soviet Union is given in [4].

Lysenko’s immunity to criticism within the Soviet Union was first officially ended in 1964 after the dismissal of Khrushchev - Stalin’s successor as Soviet leader - when the physicist Andrei Sakharov spoke out against Lysenko in the General Assembly of the Academy of Sciences and held him responsible for the poor state of Soviet biology and for the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists. An expert commission was appointed by the Academy to investigate the work of Lysenko and a few months later, a devastating critique became public and the Lysenko era finally faded out.

The Lysenko affair is a grave example of how a political system can foster and support ‘research’ based on ideologies rather than scientific methods. Lysenko collaborated eagerly with the system persecuting the few scientists who opposed him. He was undoubtedly guilty of scientific misconduct, even taking into consideration his poor scientific training.

The Concept of Scientific Misconduct

The first nation to take governmental steps towards handling problems related to lack of integrity and honesty in the sciences seems to be the USA, where offices for handling such problems were installed in 1989 by two federal institutions, respectively the National Science Foundation and the Public Health Service. The large majority of cases have appeared within the area of responsibility of the Public Health Service, where it is administratively handled by the Office of Research Integrity. This office deals with fraud and misconduct in governmental funded biomedical and behavioural research.

In 1996 the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy took the initiative to phrase a definition of scientific misconduct, which was published in the Federal Register on the 14th of October 1999 and later approved and adopted by the US National Academies of Sciences [5].

The Definition approved by the US National Academies of Sciences

The definition of scientific misconduct (‘research misconduct’) currently being used in the USA is for good reasons known as the FFP-definition (Fabrication, Falsification, and Plagiarism). It goes as follows.

“Research misconduct is defined as fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results.

Fabrication is making up results and recording or reporting them.

Falsification is manipulating research, materials, equipment, or processes, or changing or omitting data or results such that the research is not accurately represented in the research record.

Plagiarism is the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit, including those obtained through confidential review of other’s research proposals and manuscripts.

Research misconduct does not include honest error or honest differences of opinions.”

The definition of scientific misconduct varies slightly from nation to nation. The relatively narrow definition used in the USA is a common core in all definitions of scientific misconduct.

I shall now give a short introduction to the Danish system for handling misconduct in the sciences, including the definition of misconduct used by the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD).

The Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty

There are three committees in the Danish system to deal with misconduct in research, one for each of the broad areas “Health and Medical Science”, “Natural, Technological and Production Science” and “Cultural and Social Science”.

The three committees, called the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty, have a joint secretariat in the Danish Agency for Science, Technology and Innovation and they are chaired by a joint chairman - a High Court Judge.

The committees were created in 1998. They acted under “Executive Order no. 933 of 15 December 1998” until 1 August, 2005, where a new set of regulations “Executive Order no. 668 of June 28, 2005” came into force. The information about the committees in this article relates to the new regulations [6].

Each of the three committees has 6 recognized researchers as members and 6 alternates.

Each complaint made to the DCSD about misconduct in research shall be considered by the committee under which the research field of the defendant belongs – the decision about the relevant committee is made by the chairman.

When a complaint is brought forward to DCSD, all of the 36 members and alternates are informed about the complaint, and when the relevant committee has made its verdict all 36 members and alternates are again informed about the outcome.  

The Danish system for handling misconduct in the sciences is a comprehensive and serious one and it is not a playground for escalating personal animosity among colleagues. Personal conflicts founded in other things than research can only be handled at the place of work.

The definition of scientific dishonesty – another phrase for scientific misconduct – used in Denmark at present is slightly broader than the FFP-definition.

The Definition used by the DCSD

“Scientific dishonesty shall mean intentional or grossly negligent conduct in the form of falsifi­cation, plagiarism, non-disclosure or any similar conduct involving undue misrepresentation of a person’s own scientific work and/or scientific results. Included hereunder are:

  • undisclosed fabrication and construction of data or substitution with fictitious data;
  • undisclosed selective or surreptitious discarding of a person’s own undesired results;
  • undisclosed unusual and misleading use of statistical methods;
  • undisclosed biased or distorted interpretation of a person’s own results and conclusions;
  • plagiarism of other person’s results or publications;
  • a false credit given to the author or authors, misrepresentation of title or workplace;
  • submission of incorrect information about scientific qualifications.”

Adjusting the handling of Misconduct in the Sciences

Scientists have always been dependent on finding sponsors for their research. Nowadays the competition for funding is severe and temptations for dishonesty in the way research is conducted thereby become great. 

A decisive incidence for bringing misconduct in the sciences to the attention of the public and leading to the creation of offices to handle asserted misconduct in a proper way was a famous case in the USA.

The Baltimore Case

In 1991 the prominent biomedical researcher David Baltimore, Nobel Laureate 1975, was forced to resign from his position as president of Rockefeller University, a position he had held since 1989. The background was an incident going back to 1986 while he was director of a famous biomedical research centre at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In April 1986 David Baltimore with five co-authors published a paper on certain reactions induced by transmission of genetic material from one strain of mice to another strain. In May 1986 one of the co-authors, Theresa Imanishi-Kari, was accused of fraud in reporting data on the genetic material. During subsequent congressional hearings on the case, Theresa Imanishi-Kari was vigorously defended by David Baltimore, who insisted on the right of scientists to be the only judges of their work. The Congress was, however, of a different opinion and took during the course of the trial initiative to establish the federal agency Office of Research Integrity mentioned earlier. The Baltimore case was concluded in 1996 with the complete acquittal of Imanishi-Kari, whereas Baltimore, who received severe criticism in the first half of the trial, had to resign his presidency of Rockefeller University in 1991. He received rehabilitation in 1997 when he was nominated as president of California Institute of Technology.

The Baltimore case has been instrumental for raising the awareness of scientific misconduct in the sciences, particularly the health sciences, and it fully demonstrated to the public how complicated it can be to unravel fraud in the sciences without appropriate means. A detailed and comprehensive description of the Baltimore case has been given by the historian of science Daniel J. Kevles in the book [7], which was excellently reviewed in [8]. 

A momentarily backlash to work for maintaining good conduct in the sciences happened a few years ago in Denmark. The case attracted considerably international attention.

The Lomborg Case

The case in question was an accusation against the Danish social scientist Bjorn Lomborg for scientific dishonesty in his book “The Sceptical Environmentalist” [9]. The book argues and seeks to prove that the main environmental problems created by mankind, like air pollution, are not so serious after all and that it is better to use money on other problems for mankind, like poverty and clean water. The accusation was brought for the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty early in 2002, and since the complaints generally included areas of natural, social and health science, it was decided to treat the complaints at joint meetings common to all of its three committees. In its ruling in January 2003, the committees found that, by customary scientific standards, Lomborg had acted at odds with good scientific practice in his systematically one-sided choice of data and in his arguments. If the book should be considered as science and not as a contribution to the general debate, then in addition the scientific message had been so distorted that the objective criteria for establishing scientific dishonesty had been met. The committees did not find a sufficient basis, however, on which to establish that Lomborg had misled his readers with intent or gross negligence.

Lomborg appealed the decision to the Danish Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation. The Ministry’s ruling in December 2003 was critical of the committees work in a number of legal aspects, including the rationale for regarding the book as a scientific work (research), and also the use by the committees of the concept of ‘good scientific practice’ was severely criticised. Nevertheless, the Ministry let it be up to the committees to decide whether to reopen the case. For legal reasons, this was, however, not possible, since the committees found it unlikely that a new examination would lead to substantial changes in the original ruling, which de facto acquitted Lomborg of scientific dishonesty. Thus the Ministry’s ruling in reality reflected an overruling of the decision by the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty. In several ways, the Lomborg case therefore ended ‘dangling in mid- air’.

The Lomborg case reveals the great problems encountered in reaching balanced decisions when judging scientific conduct in cross-disciplinary research. This is particularly true when political sciences are involved and the line between research and debate is not clear cut – the problem with facts and their interpretations.

As a political consequence of the Lomborg case, the Danish legislature passed a new law “Executive Order no. 668 of June 28, 2005” for the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty, which came into force 1 August, 2005.

Some Remarks on the new Regulations for DCSD

The wording of the definition of scientific dishonesty as such is not dramatically changed in the new set of regulations for the committees. There are, however, a few changes in the regulations for the working of the committees, which could turn out to cause problems to various degrees.

In the previous set of regulations, anybody who came across a case of scientific dishonesty could bring it for the DCSD. In the new regulations, the committees can only accept to investigate an accusation of scientific dishonesty, if the whistleblower is a party, i.e. the whistleblower shall have a direct personal interest in the case. It is, however, possible for DCSD to take up a case of scientific dishonesty on its own initiative if the case is of general interest for Danish science. It remains to be seen whether this change will be an obstacle for taking up serious cases of scientific dishonesty in Denmark in the future.

A change, which could turn out to be troublesome, is that in the new regulations only people having an academic training (candidate level at least) can be convicted for scientific misconduct. Presumably, this will imply that e.g. medical nurses cannot be held responsible for scientific misconduct, only medical doctors or scientists involved in medical experiments.

A serious problem is that only researchers in public institutions (universities, hospitals etc.) can be brought for DCSD in cases of asserted scientific misconduct. A researcher in a private company is exempted from being investigated by the DCSD unless the company chooses to allow an investigation.

Some Remarks on how the DCSD work

A case in Denmark, presently under investigation, concerns a complaint against a Danish dentist. Following the usual procedure, DCSD has advised people involved in the case not to go public with details as long as the case is being investigated. Nevertheless, the case was made public in an article in Jyllands-Posten September 17, 2006. Unfortunately, some misunderstandings about how the DCSD work were brought forward in the article.

Following the rules of DCSD, the case will be handled by the “Committee for Health and Medical Science”, i.e. by 6 members or alternates from that committee. To reach a verdict, at least 4 members and the chairman (high court judge) shall be present. In Jyllands-Posten it was wrongly asserted that the case would be handled by a small subcommittee of 3 arbitrary researchers from the DCSD.

All verdicts in cases brought for the DCSD are decided by researchers in subject areas close to the subject area of the particular case. For help in investigating a case, the DCSD may appoint ad hoc committees of experts for clarifying and elucidating the allegation about misconduct but the final decision is made by members of DCSD as described. 

Ethics and Publication

Worldwide researchers are faced with constant and increasing pressures by governments and universities for publication in high prestige research journals. For many researchers it has become a goal in itself to have a high citation count rather than thinking about making contributions to knowledge.            

The merits in presenting new research in a scholarly way in carefully documented and comprehensive works, like monographs and long memoirs, are not appreciated by those administrators who can count the number of your publications but do not have time for assessing their quality. Finding the ‘least publishable unit’ and slicing your work accordingly therefore becomes a goal for many researchers.

The habit of slicing up publications in small units has become a major concern to some scientific societies. ‘Salami publication’ is not scientific misconduct as such but it presents a threat to scholarship and knowledge by making it very difficult to trace the origins of ideas and to get connected pictures of new theories.

Double or even multiple publication of almost the same article in various scientific media is another bad habit resulting from pressures for building up long publication lists. Double publication could, and maybe even should, be considered scientific misconduct since it blurs the scientific qualifications of researchers.  

A particularly serious and growing problem in the sciences is ‘multi-authored publications’ where some of the authors on a publication did not contribute to its generation in any essential way, sometimes not at all. In cases where a project team is involved in conducting large scale experiments you often find hundreds of persons listed as authors of a publication, including technicians who only made standard measurements. Authorship should be considered a serious thing.       

The Role of Science Journalists in unveiling Scientific Fraud

Serious kinds of scientific misconduct include as we have discussed fraud, fabrication of data, or extensive plagiarism, the FFP-definition.

Accusations of scientific misconduct are unpleasant for all the people involved. Obviously it is painful for the accused but it can also turn into a nightmare for an informer whose motives are violently contested by people seeking revenge. Spectacular cases of scientific misconduct catch the interest of the media and they have serious consequences for the careers of the people involved.

The Baltimore case showed that journalists hunting for crooks, victims and heroes can do a lot of harm in complicated cases involving questionable conduct of scientists. The case lasted for ten years, and in the first five years so many things had been mixed up by the press that eventually people asked whether the persons involved did not have any legal rights. This was the reason for installing offices in the USA to handle cases of fraud in the sciences. By the end of the Baltimore case, the roles of crooks and heroes had been reversed but all the scientists involved were hurt and somehow became victims of the case. The consequences of wrong premature conclusions are so devastating for the scientists involved in cases of scientific fraud that journalists should be more than careful.

Science journalists certainly have a big role when it comes to explaining in understandable terms and in a fair and neutral way what a serious allegation of scientific misconduct is about, and reporting about the outcome when the case is concluded. Journalists always have the advantage over a legal system that they can reveal feelings and common sense attitudes to cases, which the DCSD cannot.

In some of the examples of asserted scientific misconduct we have discussed, strong political interests seem to have been at stake. In such cases a free and independent press is, of course, absolutely essential. It seems that some journalists understood the Lomborg case better than some of the managing editors of leading Danish newspapers.

The role of the whistleblower in the sciences should also be considered. It is important to support the colleagues who insist on honesty in publications and experimental work at a time with a constant pressure for high productivity. Here journalists can be of big help, not least since a journalist can ask more questions than a researcher in the DCSD. Journalists can also be of help in displaying bad publication habits.

A large majority of scientists strive for maintaining good conduct in the sciences and are upset by serious cases of scientific misconduct. It is important for the honest scientists to see that improper behaviour is dealt with and not just neglected as is often the case. As the competition for funding increases the number of cases of serious misconduct in the sciences is likely to grow unless more emphasis is put on education of the coming generations of scientists in ethical standards. Constructive debates about such issues led by science journalist can undoubtedly also be valuable.

References

  1. Broad, W. and Wade, N., ‘Betrayers of the Truth’ (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1982).
  2. Martinson, B.C., Anderson, M.S. and de Vries, R., ‘Scientists behaving badly’ (Nature 435 (2005), 737-8).
  3. Coe, L., ‘The Telephone and its Several Inventors’ (McFarlane, 1995).
  4. Soyfer, V.N., ‘Lysenko and the Tragedy of Soviet Science’ (Rutgers University Press, 1994).
  5. Goodman, B., ‘New definition for misconduct a step closer’ (The Scientist 2000, Issue 14, 1-13).
  6. Executive Order No. 668 of 28 June 2005 on the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty. Available at the website for the Danish Agency for Science, Technology and Innovation: www.fist.dk
  7. Kevles, D.J., ‘The Baltimore Case, A Trial of Politics, Science and Character’ (W.W. Norton & Company, New York, London, 1998).
  8. Rehfeld, J.F., ‘Baltimore-sagen: en lære om forskningens indre og ydre fjender’ (BioZoom nr.2, 2000).
  9. Lomborg, B., ‘The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World’ (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

This article is based partly on the manuscript for a lecture to the Danish Science Journalists’ Association on October 12, 2006, and partly on my article “Good conduct in the sciences”, published in the Annual Report 2005 from the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty.