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Conduct Unbecoming

David Weatherall

The Great Betrayal: Fraud in Science. Horace Freeland Judson. xvi + 463 pp. Harcourt, 2004. $28.

Contrary to their public image, scientists are normal, flawed human beings. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that from time to time dishonest scientists appear on the scene. However, the spate of reports of cases of scientific fraud in the United States that hit the headlines in the 1980s, culminating in the much-publicized affair involving a collaborator of Nobel laureate David Baltimore, suggested that science was suffering from a veritable crime wave. Hunting down scientific misconduct became a major pastime, and it appeared that even the great names of the past—Newton, Mendel, Darwin, Pasteur and Freud, for example—had not been above manipulating their data when it suited them.

Although this deepening suspicion of the scientific endeavor began in the United States, it soon spread to Europe and elsewhere. Scientific misconduct is now universal, or so we are told. It is not restricted to individual scientists but also seems to be rife among big corporations—notably, the pharmaceutical industry. And although it is most active in the biomedical sciences, some spectacular examples are turning up in other fields, particularly physics.

There have always been a few dishonest scientists, and it was inevitable that the huge expansion in all fields of science in the latter half of the 20th century would increase the number of cases of scientific misconduct. Furthermore, today's frenetic scientific scene undoubtedly creates an environment that is more conducive to this kind of activity. Intense competition for funding puts young scientists under increasing pressure to obtain exciting results and publish their work quickly. These stresses are compounded by demands on the part of government and funding agencies that scientists direct their work toward short-term commercial exploitation. Current research reports are often written by large multidisciplinary teams; it is very difficult for each member to have the breadth of skills to appreciate the finer details of the work of their colleagues, who in some cases may number in the hundreds. Heads of research groups increasingly are taken away from the laboratory bench by the requirements of bureaucratic administration, and the skills and responsibilities of scientific mentorship are declining. The overstretched peer review system, whether it involves assessment of work for publication or grants to carry out research, provides opportunities for plagiarism, or worse. And with the enormous pressures to publish, the most prestigious journals often restrict the length of articles such that only the bare bones of experimental methods can be included; the bracketed "data not shown" statement is ubiquitous and appears to be acceptable to many editors.

These problems have been played down to some extent by many senior scientists and their institutions through the argument that science is a self-regulating activity; work leading to potentially important discoveries is always repeated by others. Even if this is true, and the rather hollow ring of this defense notwithstanding, it ducks the issue of the considerable amount of public money that may be wasted by fraudulent science and, in the case of the biomedical sciences, the harm that may be done to the public. Hence, although one may have serious reservations about the motives of the expanding and sometimes messianic band of seekers of scientific fraud, and about the extent to which it occurs, there is no doubt that science has to face up to the existence of dishonesty within its ranks.

The complexities of fraud in science are highlighted in The Great Betrayal, Horace Freeland Judson's new account of the subject. As he points out, it is extremely difficult even to define what the term scientific fraud actually means. Where, for example, is the line drawn between extreme sloppiness and genuine intent to deceive? Scientists, like many creative people, are not always blessed with attractive personalities. When does poor management or harassment of young people in research teams cross the border between bad behavior and genuine scientific misconduct? Considering the bumbling attempts on the part of universities, grant agencies and even governments to reach any consensus about how misconduct of this type should be investigated, and the difficulties for the legal profession in putting it into a framework that is consistent with other fields of law, how are we to investigate, let alone control, this kind of behavior in the future? And how are we to protect the reputations and careers of whistleblowers in this increasingly messy scene?

Judson accepts that editors of scientific journals have gone to great lengths to try to put their houses in order, but he is not convinced that they have gone far enough or, indeed, that it is possible for them to help eradicate these problems using the current mechanisms of scientific publication. Rather, he suggests that the major hope for encouraging honesty in the scientific community lies in the evolution of open publication on the Internet. This approach to the dissemination of scientific discoveries is fast, allows the inclusion of much more experimental method and background data than is possible in scientific journals and, in particular, offers the opportunity for rapid correction of incorrect findings and for open dialogue when scientists disagree with one another.

The few cases of real or apparent scientific misconduct that have been analyzed in objective detail seem to reflect the interplay of innumerable factors: personality disorders, overpressure to be productive, greed, isolation, poor mentorship, bad communication, arrogance, personal tragedy and, above all, simple human frailty. In light of this, Judson's depressing catalogue of scientific fraud in the first half of the book seems rather merciless and one-sided. Why was it that some of the highly gifted young scientists he describes behaved in this way? A moment's reflection surely would have convinced them that their sins would come to light. Were there common threads in their early behavior in the laboratory that should have sounded warning bells? To what extent, through excessive pressures or poor supervision, did their mentors share responsibility for their misdeeds? What lessons can be learned from these human tragedies? Readers who wish to try to grapple with the complexities of the Baltimore affair, for example, will find a more balanced and humane investigation in Daniel Kevles's 1998 book The Baltimore Case. Also, Judson underemphasizes the critical role in preventing misconduct that can be played by senior scientists in creating an atmosphere in their laboratories that is not conducive to the pressures and isolation that may lead young research workers astray in their formative years. Many universities still do not run introductory courses for research students on good scientific practice or the potential pitfalls of commercial exploitation.

But these concerns apart, this is a valuable survey of an extremely disquieting and ill-understood aspect of modern science. In an epilogue, which compares scientific creativity with that of the arts, Judson argues that, ultimately, science, "the art of our time," will be recognized as our greatest achievement. Perhaps this, above all, is the reason that the disturbing issues he addresses cannot be ignored.

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