What do we mean by “integrity in science”? The word “integrity” raises images of wholeness and soundness, even perfection. Science is a process we use to gain new knowledge about and understanding of the world around us. Dictionaries often refer to this process as systematic and exact, but the workings of science frequently defy that description. As we’ll discuss below, the well-taught scientific method is not always recognizable in reality. If not held as the ideal by scientists, certainly the perception of the public is that science is systematic and exact: data are collected objectively and tested empirically. Science as a process is iterative. Over time, new facts, ideas, and interpretations resulting from continuing investigation augment our knowledge and understanding. On the other hand, sometimes they lead us to reinterpret or even discard as invalid our understanding of what we are studying. Either way, who would argue with the notion that for science to provide an understanding of nature and the physical world, the utmost integrity must be woven into both its experimentation and its interpretations?
Today, “integrity in science,” “integrity in research,” and similar phraseology have made their way into the lexicons of scientists, politicians, news reporters, and others. Integrity is expected, because science is built upon a foundation of trust and honesty. Long before federal agencies published definitions of scientific misconduct, it was obvious that lying, cheating, and stealing in the conduct of research were wrong. We are astonished and incredulous when a scientist admits to falsifying or fabricating research results. Data must be repeatable. Important findings will be checked, and cheating will inevitably be uncovered. Performing experiments, collecting data, and interpreting their meaning constitute a system of auditing often described as the self-correcting nature of science. Fabricated or falsified results cannot escape this process unnoticed.
In recent times, stories about scientific misconduct allegations, investigations, and convictions have appeared with disconcerting frequency in the news sections of interdisciplinary journals like Science and Nature. The same holds true for the general print and electronic news media. Books on scientific misconduct appear regularly, addressing specific cases or collections of cases. The cases are not limited to any one scientific discipline, and their incidence has been reported worldwide.
Are increasing numbers of scientists acting unethically and dishonestly? Can it be profitable to fabricate or falsify results? Has the competitive nature of scientific research placed pressures on scientists that lead to misconduct? Before addressing the issues prompted by such questions, let’s talk some about doing research and about researchers.
Perceptions of scientists and science
Understanding, as best we can, how scientists do research is critical to appreciating the differences between acceptable scientific conduct and scientific misconduct. Science, after all, is the work of humans, and humans are fallible, impressionable, impulsive, and subjective. They can fall prey to self-deception, rationalizing their actions in ways that mislead themselves and others. The term “sloppy science” is frequently used to describe some behaviors, but the distinction between sloppy science and scientific misconduct can be nebulous. Those seeking clear-cut answers commonly invoke the idea of deliberate deception as the defining element in misconduct. But proving that someone made a conscious decision to falsify or fabricate data or to steal another’s ideas can be extremely difficult, if not impossible. Nevertheless, each year we find government publications and websites reporting annual summaries of closed research misconduct cases where guilt was established from the evidence or admitted to by the accused.
In these times, both scientists and the public have a heightened awareness of the accountability that goes with doing research. Scientists, administrators, funding agencies, and advocacy groups regularly speak of earning and keeping the public trust when it comes to publicly supported research. News coverage of allegations of or convictions for misconduct in science or related transgressions erodes the confidence that the public has in research as an activity that benefits society. This undercuts the public’s regard for science as the definitive vehicle for uncovering truth. The public often becomes confused when scientists disagree with one another. They cannot understand how scientific facts can be disputed. Yet definitions of scientific misconduct frequently affirm that scientists will have “honest differences in interpretations or judgments of data” and that “honest error” in science does occur. In advertising, for example, there seems to be no greater virtue than the claim that a product was “scientifically tested” or, better yet, “scientifically proven to achieve results.” The public finds the idea of “scientific truth” an attractive one. After all, when we consider the research that occurs in universities, research institutes, government labs, and other places, the public is paying the bills with its tax and philanthropic dollars. And the people want their money’s worth! The public has difficulty understanding that the scientific method can generate erroneous results and propagate incorrect interpretations. An even tougher sell is the notion that these very things are built into how science works. Sometimes making mistakes and learning from them can catalyze and accelerate discovery.
When new facts prompt scientists to change their previous interpretations and conclusions, the effect on the public is disquieting. The public may fail to appreciate that the basis of sound scientific decision making is often linked to hypothesis nullification in using the scientific method. This usually unfolds as part of the iterative nature of the investigative process and may involve further work by the scientist who initially proposed the hypothesis or by others. The iterative nature of scientific investigation and the concomitant evolution of our understanding of an observation can be illustrated by sampling headlines about scientific discovery. Tracking newspaper headlines associated with the effects of oat bran consumption on cardiovascular health illustrates this point.
In 1986, typical headlines referred to oat bran as the “next miracle food,” and the public was advised to “know your oats.” Then, in the early 1990s, some headlines declared, “Oat bran claims weakened,” or they spoke of the “rise and fall of oat bran.” But as that decade progressed, so did our understanding of eating oat bran and its implications for cardiovascular health. Results of further work began to convince the scientific community that regular consumption of oat bran has positive effects. We learned that the soluble fiber in oat bran absorbs bile salts in the intestinal tract, exerting an effect on cholesterol homeostasis and probably lowering cholesterol blood levels. From this comes the reasonable expectation of decreased atherosclerotic plaque formation in blood vessels—a clear benefit to cardiovascular health. And so the headlines once again changed, reporting that “Oat bran study says cholesterol lowered” and “Lots of oat bran found to cut cholesterol.” One headline reflected the frustration the public must have felt: “Confused about oat bran?” But this seemingly confusing stream of information is just an example of science working as it often does. The very nature of scientific investigation makes the accumulation of new information and the interpretation of existing data subject to change.
Work in this area continues to yield new and sometimes surprising information. The plant product psyllium is used in humans as a bulk-forming laxative. This material is high in soluble fiber, like oat bran. When taken in relatively small dietary amounts, it can lower cholesterol, presumably in a manner similar to that mediated by the soluble fiber contained in oat bran. Its lower dose (about 10 grams/day) compared with oat bran consumption is easily administered by mixing it with water or fruit juice. However, in the past several years disclaimers have appeared on the psyllium bottles found on the shelves of retailers. They caution users that psyllium and related bulk-forming products should be taken either 2 hours before or 2 hours after taking medications. The concern is that psyllium may bind or trap other molecules—like medications—besides bile salts in the intestinal tract. This reduction in bioavailability would reduce the efficacy of the prescribed drug. A test of this hypothesis using mice indeed showed that simultaneous administration of soluble fiber (oat bran in this case) with atorvastatin significantly reduced the cholesterol-lowering effects of this drug. A better understanding of the exact mechanisms in play here is needed, but this postscript to the oat bran story further underscores the iterative nature of the discovery process. New facts and interpretations can change our understanding of the question we seek to answer. Equally important, they may open new doors and lead us to unexpected knowledge that may be unconnected to our initial hypotheses.
Scientists recognize that this is how science usually works, but in general, people outside of science do not have this same understanding. Disagreements, errors, and new interpretations of results are sometimes reported to the public by the media. It is easy for such reporting to be misinterpreted. The debate about emerging or evolving scientific knowledge can be seen as confusion or interpreted as accusation. This may even cause some to question the integrity of the science. Compounding this problem is the commonly held stereotype that David Goodstein calls the “myth of the noble scientist.” This myth holds that scientists must be virtuous, upright, impervious to human drives such as personal ambition, and incapable of misbehaving. Goodstein recognizes science as a human activity that has hypocrisies and misrepresentation built into it. As scientists, we become accustomed to such behaviors and often don’t even recognize misrepresentations. Goodstein argues that this myth of the noble scientist does science a disservice because it blurs the “distinction between harmless minor hypocrisies and real fraud.” In summary, the human behavior that is a part of scientific research may influence how that research is done. It may also lead to misunderstandings that may confuse acceptable activities with inappropriate behavior.
Textbooks teach us that scientific research proceeds according to “the scientific method.” According to this method, a gap in knowledge is identified and questions are posed. Existing information is studied, and a hypothesis—a prediction or educated guess—is formed to explain certain facts. Information is gathered, analyzed, and interpreted in the process of testing the hypothesis. Results may support or refute a hypothesis, but a hypothesis cannot be proved. Indeed, a hypothesis can only be disproved. Further testing of specific hypotheses and their derivatives strengthens their support and leads to the genesis of a theory. Theories take into account a strongly supported hypothesis or set of hypotheses and encompass a broadly accepted understanding of a natural concept. It follows that, since they are based on hypotheses, theories can eventually be disproved but they cannot be proved. When hypotheses are not supported, the results obtained are often used to refine or cons...