Nicholas Steneck: the pressures making scientists go off-piste

Nicholas Steneck is director of the Research Ethics and Integrity Program of the Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research and professor emeritus of history at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, USA. He is also a consultant to the US Government Federal Office of Research Integrity, HHS.

He has published articles on the history of research misconduct policy, responsible conduct of research instruction, the use of animals in research, classified research and academic freedom, the role of values in university research, and research on research integrity. Most recently, he authored the ORI Introduction to the Responsible Conduct of Research.

In this exclusive interview to the EuroScientist, he shares his views on the pressures that influence scientists in failing to observe the strictest ethical code of conduct.

“There is much more attention to integrity in research today than there was 15 or 20 years ago,” he says,”and therefore, people are more aware of the problems that exist so that the things that might have been common and gone on in the past and nobody paid attention to, such as questionable authorship practices or bad data interpretation practices, the sort of tings that, kind of, went and passed unnoticed are now being picked up. These things look worse because we are looking more carefully. Whether researchers are behaving with less integrity, I don’t know.”

He refers specifically to the main types of pressures that scientists are being subjected to.

“There are two pressures that I would point to. One is the pressure to publish….the more you publish, the more recognition you get, and therefore presumably, more rewards. So the enormous pressure to publish, particularly on young researchers, is one of the pressures that causes them to chop papers into small pieces, to stretch the data and so on and so forth.”

He adds: ” The second one, for the established researchers, is the pressure to get funding. Funding is tighter today. More and more universities require researchers to bring in funding. The more funding they bring in, the more successful they are…. the pressure to publish and the pressure to get funding is what drives researchers to cut corners …”

Regarding the standards of ethics that might have become looser, he points to the lack of rigour.

During peer review, for example, “there is no a lot of rigour in many areas in looking at the statistical analysis, the quality of the data, there is so much to look at, reviewers cannot look at the data to see whether the data supports what is going on.” He adds: “The kind of stresses that have researchers doing many different things are the things that causes them to look less rigorously at what is going on”.

One example is that scientists ” rely on the abstract, rather than reading at the entire paper. That is not until you read the entire paper that you actually look at the data, the interpretation and so on… Abstract are not accurate, abstract oversell articles. And yet we don’t have the time to go ahead and read everything the details and analyse the data. That’s where the rigour is breaking down, simply because of the stresses on researchers.”

In addition, he mentions the emergence of scam research papers, which are not peer reviewed.

He also refers to the fact that the peer review process is increasingly computerised, which makes it possible for researchers to infiltrate the review process and create their own review. “It is just a variety of specific ways in which the internet has loosened things up a little bit and makes it harder to control good quality research.” However, ” what is happening today, more and more countries are putting in regulations.”

To avoid such issues, he recommends introducing training to “teach new researchers about their responsibilities and about the pressures they are gonna face.” He also calls upon research leaders to stand up and promote the need for research integrity.

This is a post sponsored by ESOF 2014. Nicholas Steneck will share his views as part of a discussion at the ESOF 2014 conference, to be held in Copenhagen from 21 to 26 June 2014. Specifically, he is invited to speak at a session entitled ‘Fifty shades of deceit – key tools and processes for maintaining the integrity of the scientific record.’

Featured image credit: Nicholas Steneck

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Sabine Louët

Former editor at EuroScientist
Sabine has a passion for all things related to European research. A physicist by training, she has been covering stories in life science, the physical sciences, technology, policy and innovation for the past 20 years. She was previously the news editor at Nature Biotechnology. She was also involved in the creation of AlphaGalileo. She is the Founder of SciencePOD translating complex science and tech concepts into high-quality articles written in simple language.
Sabine Louët

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