Gaming the system: who is responsible?

Blaming increase in fraud and unethical behaviour observed in science on a lack of rigour among the emerging ranks of PhDs may appear blatantly reductionist and reactionary. Indeed, the most publicised and serious cases do come from much more senior scientists.

In fact, some might argue that we have been looking and detecting misconduct more systematically than ever before. At the same time, there is a growing movement to raise awareness of scientists’ responsibilities and better equip them to face the pressures to publish more and seek extra funding.

Yet, scientists do not exist in a vacuum. They are the product of an educational and research system with values that heavily influences their choices.

Some areas of science, such as psychology and sociology among others, could shed some light on what makes some researchers stick to the prescribed rigorous scientific method—abiding by principles of rigour, honesty, openness, fairness and duty of care—while others bypass such an approach and use their imagination to sustain their fraud. Notwithstanding personal responsibility in scientific misconduct, such behaviour is also the result of a system.

Specifically, researchers are the pure product of the culture they live in. A recent initiative on the culture of scientific research, led by the Nuffield Council of Bioethics, in the UK, is planning to study the cultural habits of contemporary scientists to find out whether the current culture of research is encouraging good science.

Culture of course is strongly linked to the institutional settings of today’s educational and scientific endeavour. And few nowadays doubt that the strong focus on numbers of publications leads to stress and not necessarily to good publications. The system of peer review may also have overstretched itself. It would be interesting to find out the experiences and views of the EuroScientist readers. Feel free to share your thoughts, in the comment box below.

Overall, the increasing discovery of scientific misconduct has had major consequences. A primary one is the associated negative publicity that has affected the public perception of scientists. It has also revived the dissensions in what values ought to be the focus of research policy, leading some to believe that modern fundamental science is nearing its twilight. It is therefore time to get a closer look at the culture and values driving European research. One does wonder why this has not been done much sooner.

Featured image credit: kentoh via Fotolia

Go back to the Special Issue: Ethics, values and culture driving research

Sabine Louët

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