Science, and the pursuit of science, is often held up as a paragon of integrity. Noble researchers seek out empirical truths regarding the world around us, reporting their results and sometimes challenging dogma. Therefore, when reports or accusations of scientific misconduct of fraud occur, they sting all the more. Everyone expects a politician to be dishonest, but the men in white lab coats are held to a higher standard.
A notable recent example concerns the work on human embryonic stem cells conducted in South Korea under Dr Woo Suk Hwang. Readers may remember the excitement that surrounded the announcement, and then the furore following news that results were faked or enhanced, and that the postdocs working in the lab were pressured into donating their own eggs to the project.
Lest you think it only happens in South Korea, the past couple of years have seen other examples of scientific misconduct, and as a result, journals are beginning to take the issue even more seriously. This brings me to an article in last week's Science. As I've covered before, postdocs make up the backbone of most research labs in the US. Postdocs depend on good publications in the fight for the few faculty appointments, and often at the mercy of their PIs due to the fact that postdoctoral positions fall somewhere between jobs and studentships when it comes to employment law. More and more postdocs in the US are reporting that they too are subject to the same kinds of pressures experienced by those working under Dr Hwang. Worse yet, those postdocs that try to speak out about the problem find that being the lowest rung on the ladder means that if it's a choice between them and the high-flying tenured PI, there's no contest.
Stories abound about labs where studies start with preconceived endpoints, where data that 'doesn't fit' is left out, or worst of all, data that is knowingly false is published anyway. It is almost understandable. Funding is becoming ever harder to obtain, and there is constant pressure from University administrators to bring in more grant money and publish in prestigious journals. Almost, but not quite. If studies are approached with a fixed conclusion at the outset, how does that differ from the proponents of ID? And the more such scandals occur, the closer the public comes to rank the men in white lab coats alongside baby-kissing politicians.
Please don't get the impression that labs such as these are the norm; data-fudging pressure cookers are the exception to the rule, but when they coincide with high-profile labs, it has more of an impact. In the decade that I've been working in research, I may have heard stories in the pub regarding other labs, but can't think of a time when anyone has told me to pretend a result never happened, nor have I seen it happen to anyone else.