By Mary Jo Frank
Scientific misconduct poses a serious threat to the research enterprise and to the intellectual integrity upon which the advancement of knowledge depends, President James J. Duderstadt warned fellow scientists in Rackham Auditorium last Tuesday.
Duderstadt, who also is chair of the National Science Board, addressed members of Sigma Xi and the Science Research Club about “Scientific Integrity and the University” as part of Sigma Xi’s Ethics and Science Lecture Series.
Scientific misconduct “can taint the reputation of the University and of its honest scholars and researchers. It can disrupt lives. It can ruin futures for our scholars. It can compromise the position of collaborators, research assistants and research directors. It can lead other investigators down fruitless paths of inquiry at enormous costs of knowledge, morale, careers, time and money.”
It is the rare cases of scientific misconduct, along with indirect cost scandals, that contribute to the public’s negative perception of both researchers and the academic community, Duderstadt added.
Many members of Congress, the press and the public believe that scientific misconduct is rampant and that things are out of control, he said.
Duderstadt noted that over the past few years, the National Academy of Sciences has documented roughly 200 allegations of misconduct in science reported to U.S. government offices, and of that number, about 30 cases resulted in confirmed findings of misconduct—a relatively low number compared to the 26,000 research grants supported each year by the National Institutes of Health.
The U-M is investigating an average of two cases of misconduct at any one time.
“That does not mean two new cases every year,” Duderstadt said. “It means that of all of the research performed by 3,300 faculty members at the U-M, there is a consistent average of two cases of scientific misconduct being investigated or adjudicated.”
As science plays an increasingly critical role in political, economic and social decisions, and as the federal government’s support of basic research grows to billions of dollars, Duderstadt said it is understandable that society is demanding a higher level of accountability within the scientific community.
While much of the scientific community has resisted the intrusion of government oversight into research, Duderstadt said, “we now are beginning to understand more deeply and accept that we have to make our code clearer and enforce it or others will do it for us.”
Duderstadt said fraud is a deliberate effort to deceive, including plagiarism, fabrication of data, misrepresentation of historical sources, tampering with evidence, selective suppression of unwanted or unacceptable results, and theft of ideas.
Fraud and negligence should be treated differently, he said. Misconduct must be investigated using established procedures, but if it is clear that fraud is not involved, then the investigation should cease, regardless of the degree of carelessness found in the work under scrutiny.
The University has a responsibility to have policies and procedures in place to address cases of scientific misconduct and to review and adhere to those policies and procedures, according to the president.
Although the University has a responsibility to protect the rights and reputations of both accuser and the accused in cases of scientific misconduct, Duderstadt said “we have a responsibility to reveal known or suspected cases of misconduct. Not doing so constitutes misconduct as well.”
Duderstadt offered a number of suggestions to prevent scientific misconduct in the University community, including: ethics training, helping junior faculty find their niche through mentoring, increasing collaboration, looking at quality rather than quantity of research, limiting the number of publications considered for promotions or funding, placing more weight on excellence in teaching, restructuring faculty roles to reduce stress, and establishing burn-out prevention and faculty development programs.
Duderstadt said that no matter how well the U-M handles its own cases of misconduct or how hard it tries to prevent them, “we need to do more. We always need to improve. Any policy, any procedure, must continually evolve to face new challenges.
“The U-M,” he concluded, “must aim for a system that is a complex mix of professional, institutional and public ethics and aim for a community that is deeply respectful of individuals and of their rights.”