December 05, 2006

Fraud in the scientific world?

In response to Trev’s heartfelt pleadings and the fact that I haven’t blogged for a VERY long time…

An article decribing some of the comments of Warwick sociology professor Steve Fuller was printed on the front page of the Boar on 7th November (a long time ago, I know). In it, Fuller is said to advocate the use of fraudulent data in scientific research in order to tweak results and make conclusions more convincing. He has even defended the actions of South Korean professor Woo Suk Hwang, who pretended that he had managed to clone a human embryo. He decribes the approach he suggests as ‘idealising’ results rather than ‘fraud’.

The article also details a survey take by Nature in the US which suggests that a third of postgraduate researchers did not follow ethical guidelines in their research. Currently, when articles come to publication, the journal editors have to essentially take them on face value. Fuller argues that we shouldn’t put so much trust in our scientists.

Should we take the scientists’ word for it? Should there be some kind of vetting system aiming to identify fraudulent research? Would measures of this kind ‘slow the pace of science down prohibitively’, as Fuller puts it? How easy would it be possible to maintain some kind of uniform standard in this vetting system? Does the fact that some kind of scientific fraud takes place already, and that eradicating it would be very difficult, justify its existence to the extent that we shouldn’t do anything about it? If you allow some kind of fraud (the ‘tweaking’ of results, for instance) how do you then stop it from going beyond just ‘tweaking’? Can we then trust the scientists to ‘tweak’ their results in the direction of the actual truth (inaccuracies can happen either through intentional bias or just because the data subtly suggests something that on further investigation actually turns out to be fictitious)?

- 4 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. The last point is the key one. We do scientific research by having a hypothesis and testing to see whether it is true by experiment (or in maths finding a real proof ;-) ). Thw whole point is we don’t know if the hypothesis is true or false so which way do I ‘tweak’ my data….?

    05 Dec 2006, 18:34

  2. “The scientific mind does not so much provide the right answers as ask the right questions.” – Claude Levi-Strauss

    I agree with Justin. As scientists we need to remember that it’s not our primary aim to find the answer to things, what we should be doing is asking an important question. We then go about finding a solution in a systematic, methodical way. The thing I’m learning as I attempt to do research for my PhD is that there’s always a bigger picture. And as Sarah mentions, if you tweak your data to suit you for the moment, there could be repercussions in the future as people (perhaps even you) continue with that thread of research.

    Perhaps what needs to be looked at more closely is the way in which work is reviewed before being published. All journals send submitted articles to peer reviewers before deciding whether to accept or reject them, but I’m beginning to see that this process isn’t without flaws. A post-doctoral researcher had a paper rejected, and from the reviewers comments it seems to be more about them not understanding the point of his project rather than his work being unworthy of publication. Turn that around and imagine someone submitting some work where the reviewers aren’t experienced enough or knowledgeable enough to see errors or oversights in the work and it might just be accepted for publication. Before you know it the work’s out there, ready to be accepted as truth by the unsuspecting public.

    V xx

    06 Dec 2006, 18:10

  3. hurrah for posting!

    10 Dec 2006, 12:12

  4. Just came across this in an update from the scientific journal Nature:

    Thought it was very interesting and in-line with this discussion.

    V xx

    04 Jan 2007, 09:31

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