It's said that when Dutch textile workers in the 15th century felt their livelihoods were being threatened by automation, they threw their wooden shoes — sabots in French — into the cogs to break the machines and save their jobs. Hence, sabotage. Though this story has never been confirmed, it illustrates the concept of sabotage very well: a worker believes his or her job is threatened, and thus schemes to put the competition out of business.
Science is not immune to such shenanigans. Although scientific saboteurs almost never use wooden shoes to destroy the work of their peers, the damage they do can be even greater. In September, University of Michigan authorities alleged that postdoc Vipul Bhrigu had sabotaged the experiments of Heather Ames, a grad student in the same lab, in order to slow down her work. According to Nature, Bhrigu — who was caught by a hidden camera sting — admitted to poisoning Ames' cell culture media, among other things, and said that he felt pressure to do so because he was falling behind in his own work.
After the incident was reported, researchers began to wonder whether such lapses are common, and whether ethics training ought to be revamped in the scientific community. Aine Donovan, executive director of Dartmouth College's Ethics Institute, says that despite incidents such as the one at Michigan, the state of research ethics is actually improving. Aside from what is required to be taught to grad students and postdocs, many schools are now teaching undergraduates the finer points of research ethics in order to prepare them for using those standards in the lab on a daily basis, she says.
Wylie Burke, chair of the department of bioethics and humanities at the University of Washington School of Medicine, has a similar take on the issue. "I think that the world of science has probably, from its inception, had occasional bad apples who do really outrageous things, and that's always a tragic event for science," she says. "[But] I don't have any reason to think that the rate at which that is occurring is any worse now than before." In fact, Burke adds, there is an increasing emphasis on bioethics-related scholarship, which is bringing many issues to light, including how to improve on the current research framework and how research ethics have developed over time. "We have evolved our standards to a much more stringent approach," Burke says.
Competition and collegiality
Despite these advances, instances of misconduct and bad behavior continue to exist in labs all over the world, and they are not simply the problem of the affected labs. In 2006, prominent South Korean stem cell researcher Hwang Woo-suk was found to have fabricated a large amount of the data in his landmark research on cloning human embryos. Two papers he published in Science — one from 2004 and one from 2005 — were retracted, and scandalized researchers who had previously collaborated with Hwang cut off their associations.
"I can't even begin to say how important [trust] is," Donovan says. "It's just the most fundamentally important issue in science. Science is predicated on trust and so we assume when someone does an experiment or publishes a paper, that they have put their best foot forward, that there's honor and integrity in the work they have put out."
New data often builds on older work, she adds, and it would be impossible to do good science without trusting that the work of those that came before was done honestly and transparently.
Trust, however, is sometimes eroded by the sense of competition that exists in the lab environment: colleagues in competition with one another for better placement on authorship lists, peers in competition for funds and prestige, and professors in competition for tenured faculty positions. How to foster a sense of friendly competition while avoiding situations like the one at the University of Michigan is the "million dollar question," Donovan says. But competition is a fact of life — not only for scientists, but for everyone, she adds. "There are fewer resources for a greater number of people, and competition is a reality," she says. "We may say we're not going to foster that, but students recognize that the first one to get the brass ring is the one who wins, so it's really difficult to get them to understand the nature of collaboration and collegiality."
One way to address the problem would be to change the current system of reward and punishment in science, which lends greater prestige to those who publish more and relegates those who publish less to the annals of forgotten scientists. But changing the system has been a theme that researchers have talked about for more than 20 years, Donovan says, without effecting change. Meanwhile, tenure is getting harder and harder to achieve, making the competition that much fiercer.
Another approach — the one Donovan takes with her students — is to remind young researchers about what the scientific profession is all about. "We're a community of scholars, and I think if we get back to that original intent, we'll be somewhat on a better track," she says. "No one does science in a vacuum — you're always doing it on the backs of others."
The community speaks
UW's Burke and her team went to the scientific community in and around the state of Washington and surveyed researchers to get a sense of what they believed were the biggest ethics issues they face, in an effort to better prepare and train the university's grad students and postdocs. "One of the points that was made to us was that often when we talk about ethics we focus on really egregious behavior, and it's not very effective education because people say, 'Oh, I'm not like that; I won't do that kind of stuff,' whereas the real ethical problems are day-to-day and often subtle," Burke says.
These less conspicuous issues derive from an environment of competition. For example, questions of how order of authorship on published studies should be addressed are unclear and stem directly from science's competitive nature. Another issue that came up often in the survey, Burke says, is how to handle a peer review situation in which the reviewer may be in direct competition with the reviewee for funds.
Like Donovan, Burke says that a partial solution to this problem could be to give students a clear grounding of what it is they are trying to do, which is to "create new knowledge that contributes to the overall understanding of the problem that you're working on." She often reminds students that within the basic procedures of science, there are some processes that ground scientists in the ethics of research. Making sure everything is well recorded, that records are easily available, and that work is done transparently so as to allow others to reproduce one's work are important steps in the research process, Burke says. "Isolation is a bad thing," she adds. "Science is better done in teams."
Dartmouth's Donovan says that it is also incredibly important for senior faculty members and principal investigators to be involved in what is taught to their trainees. Students often tell her that although they understand what she is telling them, their PIs and lab directors are not always on the same page. "As a profession, as a scholarly community, we need to be looking at what kind of little monsters we're creating from our own behavior," she says. "I think we're doing a really good job right now with undergrads, graduates, and postdocs, but then someone goes into a lab with a 62-year-old lab director who's kind of a moral reprobate, and all that goes out the window." What is needed right now, Donovan adds, is to bridge the gap between what's taught in the classroom and what's practiced in the lab.