3. Good Scientific Practice
This chapter describes the content of three consecutive lessons (March 7th, 14th, 21st). It starts with a general introduction to the virtues of science, the scientific ethos. Then, it illustrates the most common forms of misconduct: fraud in form of falsification, fabrication and plagiarism of data and results, reasons for fraud, and how to avoid unintended misconduct and accusation of it by proper record keeping. Further aspects include publishing of science, mentorship, conflicts of interest, intellectual property rights, collaborations and interdisciplinary research.
3.1 Virtues of scientific practice
Scientists, engineers and researchers do their activities with high responsibility. Therefore, it is important to follow guidelines of “good scientific practice” and refrain from misconduct. This means, similar to medical professions, scientist should comply with a professional “ethos” of scientific conduct. An ethos is a term used for a set of virtues that members of a professional community should follow. The idea of virtues as a source for knowing what is “good” and “right” is the oldest form of Ethics. The most prominent advocates of virtue ethics are the ancient Greek Philosophers, especially Plato, Aristotle and Socrates, but also the Asian schools of thought from that time, Kongzi’s, Laozi’s and Siddhartha Gautama’s (Buddha’s) Philosophy, are at least partly built on the idea of “virtues” as a source for good life conduct.
What was these wise men’s idea? If you want to find out what you should do in a particular role, imagine the “ideal” person and what he would do, and that is what you should do. For example: when you are a soldier and wonder how you should act in a certain situation, you imagine the “ideal soldier” and will certainly find that he would have virtues like bravery, courage, and persistence, but would certainly not have vices (the opposite of virtues) like daredevilry or cowardice. Therefore, you – as a soldier – should act brave and wise. Here, you can see that virtues are thought of a golden mean, the middle way (note the link to Buddhist philosophy), between two extremes (the vices) of “a lack of it” and “too much of it”. A lack of courage is cowardice, an excess of courage (or “an over-ambition of showing courage”) is daredevilry. Another example could be the virtue generosity with its vices stinginess and wastefulness, for example for a businessman.
In all kinds of life situations and the roles a person can find itself in – politician, citizen, husband, etc. – this consideration can be applied. Some virtues are valid for all and therefore considered “universal virtues”, like wisdom or benevolence. An important aspect of virtues is that they are expressions of personality and not utilised strategies for certain goals in particular situations. Virtues are “cultivated” by the willingness to act according to them and the repeated application so that they become part of one’s habits and personality. The approach sounds simple and, actually, it was criticised to be vague and arbitrary. However, in many cases it serves the purpose of defining codes of conduct very well and is easy to understand for those who are obliged to follow the rules. Let’s see what can be stated as “the virtues of science” by imagining “the ideal scientist” (in Confucius’ words: a 君子 (junzi) in the role of a scientist).
Intellectual honesty: This virtue addresses the scientist’s duty to be honest about his findings and neither keep findings secret (for example for opportunistic reasons) nor speak too open about his projects (foolishly reveal good research ideas, or making promises and prospects that are not well grounded, “babbling”).
Truthfulness: In order to maintain credibility and trust, a scientist must stick to “truth” in the sense that he can only state what his findings suggest, and even must do so. Secretiveness (even though sometimes required in collaborative projects with industrial partners) is the negative vice, rumour-mongering (speaking “too much” truth) is the excessive vice.
Objective truth seeking and truth assurance: Whereas the former virtue refers more to communicative actions in the science community or in public spheres, this point is of procedural importance. In conducting his experiments, the scientist is obliged to free himself from bias and other factors that might influence his objective devotion to truth. On the other hand, he has to be careful not to drift too much into relativism, a position in which a clear standpoint or viewpoint is never reached.
Objectivity: This virtue is required for the overall approach to science conduct, when designing research projects or when conclusions from studies are drawn. A lack of objectivity is shown, for example, when the scientist sticks to certain ideologies and non-scientific presuppositions. On the other end of the scale, objectivity can amount to a very distant relation to one’s own research, almost like aloofness.
Dedicated disinterestedness: A scientist should have no other interest but the generation of insight and knowledge, and especially no “interest” in the kind and type of result he obtains. The selfless devotion to the ambitious goal of knowledge increase should not be blurred by selfish careerism, the interests of any sponsors, or other forms of seeking advantages. Too much disinterestedness might end up in indifference, which must also be avoided if the scientist wants to occupy a certain niche in the scientific community.
Systematised doubt: Doubt (next to curiosity, maybe) is the main driver of scientific inquiry, but it must be systematised and reasonably approached with the scientific method. When it becomes categorical skepticism, the scientific endeavour turns unfeasible. Lack of doubt – maybe termed credulity or gullibility, believing things too easily and unquestioned – can damage the quality of scientific output and the scientist’s reputation.
Disciplined self-control: This virtue addresses the scientist’s self-perception. If he takes himself as “the greatest”, beyond any flaws and insufficiences, not able to take criticism, his self-adulation makes him a bad scientist. If he shows a lack of confidence in himself, playing himself down, believing in himself being unworthy or flawed, his self-humiliation inhibits his scientific success. A self-controlled scientist will accept criticism, is eager to improve and get better every day, but also knows his strong points and steps in for his convictions.
Fairness: A scientist is in most of the cases a team player, devoted to fairness and cooperation. Unfairness will surely be sanctioned. But also the “excess-vice” has a negative impact: A scientist who is too submissive, leaving the stage (and the fame) to others, stepping back to favour his colleagues, will have difficulties establishing a smooth and fruitful career.
Next to these more individual virtues, there is a set of communal virtues for scientists, as proposed by Robert Merton:
- Universalism – Scientific statements should be valid independent from time, space and cultural framework.
à Vices: Ideology, dogmatism, particularism
- Communalism – Scientists must not follow individual interests but, in each individual action, support and benefit the community of scientists or social institution of “science” as such.
à Vices: Self-interest, unfairness, opportunism
- Skepticism – Scientists should always be their own strongest critics, always question their theories and findings, and be most skeptic about their achievements.
à Vices: Uncriticalness, gullibility
This virtues partly overlap with the previous ones. A note on skepticism: Whereas I mentioned skepticism (as “categorical doubt”) as a vice (an excess of systematised doubt) first, it is a virtue here. From my point of view, this is because an individual scientist must be “reasonably doubtful”, knowing when to stop doubting and start stating, whereas for the scientific community as a whole, “institutional skepticism” is a Leitmotiv (guiding principle) to be clearly distinguishable from doctrine-driven institutions (like religion) and to be societally legitimised as such.
It should also be noted, that we can collect more virtues of course, such as curiosity, courage (think of Galileo who had to defend his science in front of the powerful roman-catholic church), perseverance, helpfulness, diligence, assiduity, and many more. However, I would claim that these are either too general (which job would not demand perseverance and diligence?), or character dispositions that don’t have the status of a virtue. Also, scientists certainly need to have a certain mental and cognitive capacity (in other words: they need to be smart), but this would rather go as a talent or skill than as a virtue.
3.2 Scientific misconduct
These virtues describe an ideal. The reality, actually, looks different. We can observe a lot of misconduct in the sciences. What is scientific misconduct? Above all, it is fabrication, falsification and unauthorised copying (plagiarism) of data and text, prominently labelled “the FFP-definition of scientific fraud”.
Some cases like that of Korean geneticist and biochemist Hwang Woo-Seok who fabricated an enormous amount of data in order to keep the illusion of the correctness of his revolutionary research alive are obvious and clear in ethical evaluation. However, there is a very large grey zone! When does manipulation of data start? Researchers face this situation every day: They repeat an experiment four times. Three times it shows a result they expect, one time it deviates from the expectation. Shall they just ignore that one? Skip it and never mention it again? Or within a series of measurements, one obtained value is far off. Delete that data point? It must not always be the intended manipulation of a device or the direct fabrication of results (inventing data without doing an experiment or study). The bias starts earlier, but can grow into the clearly illegal area. Trust – in oneself, one’s colleagues, the applied methodologies, experimental setups, the equipment and the technical devices – and good will are non-scientific categories that are subtly pervading all research activity. The sophistication of spectrometers and other imaging devices as technical extensions of our limited senses turns them more and more into black boxes. This convenience bears the danger of a temptation to interpret pictures benevolently and in accordance to the expectation (or the desired finding) rather than with the necessary critical analysis – a perfect example for the impact of Philosophy of Science on the ethical conduct of science.
Why would scientists tend to improper conduct of research or even fraud? Many researchers feel a lot of pressure from a high competition within their institute or scientific community, from a funding source or from expectations by others or by themselves. Certainly, the character or personality of the researcher plays a role, and it is often pride that makes scientist commit fraud. Many reported cases suggest that – in view of the expected prominent application of (fabricated or falsified) findings and the subsequent fame – the researchers committing fraud must have been fully aware that their misconduct will be uncovered, hinting at pathological behaviour that requires therapy and treatment rather than punishment and dismissal from their academic positions. Most of them show a phenomenon called “paraphrenia”: Even though there is clear evidence, the culprit is downright convinced that he/she didn’t commit fraud, as if the act is entirely deleted from their memory. Students are a special case: Diploma, Master or PhD students feel pressure to achieve a good mark with their thesis, so they feel like they have to obtain good results in their research project that is often limited in time.
3.3 Scientific record keeping
Many cases of fraud accusation arise from poor record keeping. With other words: Many cases of suspicion could have been avoided if the defendants had been able to provide a properly written lab notebook. Most institutions (universities) require their students and staff to keep track of everything they do, and there might be even courses or seminars on how to do that. Complete and well-organised lab notebooks can easily solve certain unclarities. Moreover, they also help the researcher, of course, to maintain an overview of activities, the state of a study, the necessity of further experiments, etc., so that writing a research report becomes much easier. Especially for Master and PhD students, it is therefore highly recommended to put efforts into writing proper lab notebooks.
Here is an example of what that could look like (taken from Macrina 2015, pp.348/349). Don’t bother the handwriting (I can’t read that either), the content is not important. But note the features that make this record a “good” one. These are pages from a bound book, consecutively numbered so that references to entries on other pages can be made. Each entry is labelled with the date and a headline. The researcher introduced the plan for that day with his/her idea and thoughts that explain the choice of experiment. This experiment plan is shortly summarised, giving a citation from which the protocol is taken. Then, the actual conduct of the experiment is listed, with the exact values for used substances, solvents, for time measures, etc. The result section includes a physical output (here: the print-out of the visualisation of an agarose gel electrophoresis after a PCR (polymerase chain reaction to “amplify” a gene sequence)), and a short evaluation or interpretation of it. Concluding remarks may give an outlook for further experimenting (change in protocol, or other factors tested, etc.). If possible, all obtained result items (spectra, images, data sheets, etc.) should be taped or glued into the notebook so that they can’t get lost.
There are certain challenges for record keeping, like electronic data, the computer-aided processing of data that is not trackable in a lab notebook, or the sometimes interdisciplinary character of collaborative studies in which data must be shared (we will talk about that later). It must also be noted that data including the lab notebooks are usually the property of the institute (faculty, university), NOT that of the researcher! Scientists are not allowed to take their notebooks home or keep them when they finish a project, leave the institution or change to another one. We will address this issue in the section on (intellectual) property rights and its conflicts.