Rare scientific misconducts cost us our reputation

Just a couple of weeks ago Marc Hauser was in the news, again. He is known as one of the world’s leading evolutionary biologists and teaches at the Psychology Department at Harvard University. His work focused on primate behaviour and animal cognition. Hauser has been awarded science medals from the US and France and he has published about 200 articles in research journals. However, the latest news coverage is based on accusations against Hauser as the Harvard faculty suspend him while investigations are carried out for “scientific misdemeanour”.

The Hauser-case was headline news and the topic of more journals, magazines and radio and TV-shows than all the research he conducted in the last 20 years . Research integrity, and its breach, has a high news value. Similarly, accusations against researchers at the University of East Anglia, UK, in climate research a year ago also resulted in enormous press coverage. In this type of new coverage, the research itself is a minor topic. Erratic behaviour in science easily affects public perception of science overall and creates a misleading image of researchers than is inappropriate, given that research misconduct is rather rare.

Unnoticed by the public, there is a serious discussion about research integrity within the global science community. At the forefront: the US Office of Research Integrity (ORI) and the European Science Foundation (ESF), with strong support from the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the European Molecular Biology organisation (EMBO) have played a leading role in both the world conferences held so far on this topic.

In July 2010 the Second World Conference on Research Integrity, WCRI 2010, took place in Singapore with substantial support and commitment from Singapore’s three universities, the A*STAR research institute and the Government of Singapore. More than 300 delegates from all over the world focused on developing recommendations to create internationally approved guidelines on research integrity. Finally, they formulated the The Singapore Statement – a declaration of universal principles and responsibilities.

Tony Mayer, Co-Chair of both the World Conferences and a member of EuroScience told us: “We have developed the Singapore Statement which covers the four principles and 14 responsibilities which we believe are universal and of which all researchers, their institutions and funders and journals must be aware and should subscribe to.”

The core principles are:

  • Honesty in all aspects of research
  • Accountability in the conduct of research
  • Professional courtesy and fairness in working with others
  • Good stewardship of research on behalf of others

Tony Mayer now expects the global science community to respond and to discuss these principles and the 14 responsibilities named in the Singapore Statement. This could be a feature of future Euroscience Open Forums and there are also hopes that this will engender discussion in a number of European organisations including the European Commission and the EUA.

As a follow-up to the first conference, held in Lisbon in 2007, and as an input to the Second Conference in Singapore, the European Science Foundation (ESF) published the report by the ESF Member Organisation Forum on Research Integrity. The 20-page document “takes the format of a European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity, which can be used as a reference point for all aspects of research activities, complementing existing codes of ethics and complying with national and European legislative frameworks.” wrote Marja Marakow, the ESF Chief Executive.

But what is the next step? Prior to make individually tailored research integrity guidelines compulsory for employees, research integrity has to become an essential part of education for young scientists. As soon as possible, young academics have to adopt to integrity rules. This will not prevent misdemeanour – but it will sensitise researchers to see and report scientific wrongdoing.

Marc Hauser’s case is still under investigation. Other cases such as the Korean biologist Hoo Suk Hwang or Germany’s anthropologist Prötsch-von Zieten and physicist Jan-Hendrik Schön show that research integrity has to be on the daily agenda of science. Research misconduct can occur in all disciplines and in all countries. Therefore, researchers must set and maintain high standards for integrity in all aspects of their work to deserve public trust and support.

This post was kindly co-edited by Tony Mayer.

Simon Schneider
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