Scientists May Act Like Children

Apr 13 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Yesterday I had the pleasure of hearing Gerald P. Koocher, PhD, deliver the Walter C. Randall Lecture in Biomedical Ethics at Experimental Biology 2011.


First, how could you not want to listen to a guy who looks that much like Pee Wee Herman?

Don't fear if you were not among those in the room. Dr. Koocher has made his PowerPoint slides available. I will hit the highlights here.

The powers that be define bad science as fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism, although their survey also identified authorship issues, uncomfortable work environments, and "The Bozo Factor" as other issues. What is the latter? Incompetency and inadequate supervision of others, for the most part.

So why do people cheat? Most folks can come up with a rationale for cheating, and often a reward figures in the equation. If the likelihood of discovery seems low enough, people may cut corners or outright lie. So the same thought process that drive a 5-year-old to deny taking the forbidden cookies may also lead to data fabrication in the laboratory.

His research showed that intervening was scary, but in most cases the whistleblower did not suffer horrible consequences. Dr. Koocher suggests that we develop alternatives to whistle blowing with our colleague. Offering help and expressing concern about something irregular can be one way to intervene and allow someone to change course while saving face. He also recommends the Bullwinkle approach. This cartoon character often stated "I am so confused." A nonthreatening approach can work best.


He also believes that scientific ethics need to learn from hospitals and report "near miss" behavior. When something almost gets done wrong, we need to learn from it.

I will let you explore the slides, including his Gallery of Ethical Rogues.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

2 responses so far

  • Jenny says:

    This is interesting because so many public relations companies use some sort of ethics code. Do you use any in particular?

    • WhizBANG! says:

      There are codes that must be followed for the ethical treatment of human and animal subjects in research. If there is any question of these being violated, your paper will be rejected from virtually all journals.

      When you submit a paper for publication, each author must sign off on the validity of the research, taking responsibility for the findings. In reality, today most authors only perform or supervise a small portion of any given study. Only the first and last/senior authors are really responsible for the whole manuscript.

      Finally, all training programs require some sort of course in the responsible conduct of research, addressing the fabrication-falsification-plagiarism paradigm put forth by NIH. Do we have scientists, students, and technicians take an oath, like doctors? No. But at multiple points along the way, scientists must take responsibility for the validity of their work.

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