The vast majority of researchers in the science field are honest and conscientious. But that’s not the case for all of them, and a federal agency that tracks misconduct and cheating in the field is seeing increases.
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Cheating in science is not new, but the way it happens and the way it’s detected are changing. There’s a lot at stake in science research, everything from public health to valuable federal dollars.
And as Gigi Douban reports from Birmingham, Alabama, there are more people watching to keep researchers honest.
GIGI DOUBAN, BYLINE: About 60 science graduate students at the University of Alabama at Birmingham are working in small groups on a quiz.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Now it gets more complicated, though. This is where it started getting really tricky for me.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I agree.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Okay, so we encouraged her to go talk to him. She didn’t do it.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yep.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Now, you’re going to have to do something because your colleague won’t. So what (unintelligible)…
DOUBAN: The questions have to do with right and wrong in science research. Sometimes, the discussions get pretty heated. That’s because issues like what do you do when you’re under pressure to publish and you’re faced with a shortcut, or what if a few labels fall off some samples? How do you reassign them? They don’t all have clear answers.
JEFF ENGLER: You hear the level of noise. You hear the level of discussion, and I think that’s a good thing.
DOUBAN: That’s Jeff Engler, associate dean at the UAB Graduate School. He’s training the next generation of scientists to do honest work. It’s not something that comes automatically. Take the case years ago of the South Korean stem cell researcher. Scientists in the field thought he was doing groundbreaking research, so a lot of them put their own work on hold. Some even collaborated with him. Turns out, his data was faked and at least a year of science was lost.
Then there was the study that linked the mumps, measles and rubella vaccine to autism. It was more than 10 years before the scientific paper was retracted. In the meantime, that vaccine-autism connection was accepted by some and scores of parents opted not to vaccinate their kids. Dozens of articles spread the autism scare and other researchers based their work on that false data. It’s important to note most scientists do not fake results. But for the ones who cheat, it’s easier than ever.
DAVID WRIGHT: We received last year more than 400 allegations, which was just about double that of the year before.
DOUBAN: That’s David Wright, director of the Federal Office of Research Integrity. It investigates misconduct allegations and has tracked them since 1994. He says most of the increase is driven by technology, especially Photoshop.
WRIGHT: It’s enabled investigators using that technology to present their images much more vividly and directly than they could before. But it’s also made it easier for people to manipulate images.
DOUBAN: Technology has also made it easier to catch stuff like this. The Office of Research Integrity has forensic tools on its website that anyone can download to spot phony data. So more people are watching, which could be one reason for the increase. Another is that science is more global. You might have research teams in Denmark, China and the U.S. collaborating.
WRIGHT: And when the research groups get bigger and bigger, it’s not always easy to assign responsibility.
DOUBAN: How can faked results make it this far? Michael Kalichman is director of the Research Ethics Program at the University of California, San Diego. He says despite all the technology, we’re still dealing with humans.
MICHAEL KALICHMAN: Scientists are not better members of the general public. There are people in science who will be sloppy, who will cut corners and who, worse, will intentionally mislead.
DOUBAN: There are enough that the Office of Research Integrity is hiring another staffer to keep up with misconduct claims. For NPR News, I’m Gigi Douban in Birmingham, Alabama.
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