Integrity in Scientific Research: Creating an Environment that Promotes Responsible ConductBMJ 2003; 327 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.327.7420.935 (Published 16 October 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;327:935
Integrity (or lack of it) in scientific research is a hot topic, and getting hotter. A number of high profile cases of scientific misconduct in the medical press have put scientific research practices under the spotlight. Such cases reflect badly on the scientific community, undermine the public's trust in scientific progress, and jeopardise future funding for research. And it's not just a scientist's problem: patients suffer when they take part in badly designed clinical trials or are excluded from important new treatments that are delayed because of false promises based on irreproducible results.
Even unscrupulous scientists surely realise the consequences as their peers, unable to repeat a given experiment, start to question the integrity of the original research. However, the short term gains from being published in a high profile journal–promotions, lucrative research contracts, and invitations to conferences–tempt the occasional researcher to make up data that in the end turn out too good to be true. To make an example of scientists engaging in scientific misconduct, the US Office of Research Integrity pursued a high profile case against Thereza Imanishi-Kari and David Baltimore on the basis of a suspicion that a paper they had published in Cell in 1986 contained data that had been manipulated. After 10 years of grief for the two scientists, a media circus, and political shenanigans, Imanishi-Kari and Baltimore were cleared of all charges. In the end it was the integrity of the investigation itself, rather than the scientists involved, that came into question.
Taking a more sombre approach, the Office of Research Integrity is now determined to find out how scientists can be educated about the ethics and morals of scientific research as well as how to evaluate research institutions with regard to the integrity of the research they support. The US Institute of Medicine was charged with investigating these topics, and its recommendations are published in this book.
The book concludes that much effort needs to go into teaching ethics to young investigators–though this should be done through existing channels rather than through additional courses or programmes. The authors also emphasise that the institutions need to provide a supportive environment. A more difficult question is how the institutions are going to be evaluated. Scientific output can be quantified by the number of publications produced and how often these are cited, but integrity is more difficult to measure. Although the authors recommend more research in the area, they stress that self assessment should be a major component of such an exercise.
The book, though not a riveting read, is an important step in the right direction. As anyone in medicine should be aware: prevention is better than cure.