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Light Shed on Murky Moral Questions Researchers Face

Times Staff Writer

The subject of the course was ethics in science. They had talked about fudging, “cooking data” and other dubious practices. Then the two professors hit the graduate students with a hypothetical case, prickly with moral ambiguity.

You apply to work in a professor’s lab, they said. He says he’ll take you, but under certain conditions: He’ll see to it that you get your Ph.D., and you will do a project and publish the results--naming him as the principal author.

At first, the students thought the deal sounded reasonable. After all, no one was misled. Then, with a little guidance, they changed their minds. If the professor wasn’t abusing his relationship with the student, he was violating an unspoken contract as a public servant in a state university.

“What I was trying to do in this course was to get the students to think about ethical issues, about the implied contractual agreements in any interactive situation,” said Michael Mullin, one of two Scripps Institution of Oceanography professors who conducted the course.

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“That’s why I liked this case--because there is this second implied contract the professor has with the university and the state to educate students, as opposed to use them. To the extent that there was an ethical breach, it was in that implied contract with the system at large, not with the student.”

The seminar, the first of its kind at Scripps and UC San Diego, aimed to explore the murky moral questions within the practice of science, stirring up for discussion some common but questionable practices that, much of the time, go unacknowledged.

“Cutting and trimming” of data was one topic. Pilfering ideas, recycling research and exploiting co-authors were others. There were discussions of self-deception, advocacy, gullibility and, finally, self-policing and whistle-blowing.

Learning the Ropes

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“I think that a lot of us at this point in our careers are learning the ropes--how to survive in a scientific environment,” Tim Ragen, one of the 15 Scripps graduate students who took the course, said in an interview recently.

“We learn from example and don’t always, I think, sit back and take a look at the examples we see,” Ragen said. “We don’t always have opinions well-formed yet about what we think is ethical or unethical.”

The course, which was offered at Scripps for the first time last fall and has since been proposed as a regular event, comes at a time of increasing competitive pressures in science--and, some contend, an increase nationwide in scientific fraud.

There was talk of pressures often felt by students in an environment of diminishing funds for research and financial aid--pressures to excel and perhaps to conform to unreasonable “rules” in order to survive in the system.

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Among the cases discussed was one close to home--that of Dr. Robert Slutsky, the young UCSD radiologist believed by university officials to have committed extensive academic fraud. He resigned from the UCSD School of Medicine faculty in May, 1985.

“I think certainly the pressures tending to drive young researchers are increasing,” Mullin said in a recent interview during which he and his colleague, Paul Dayton, discussed their course.

"(But) if you did a calculation based on the percentage of people doing science who were frauds, I’m not sure that one could prove that they (the percentages) had changed with time,” Mullin said. “I simply don’t know. In essays, you find it argued both ways.”

Mullin, a professor of biological oceanography who has been teaching at Scripps for more than 20 years, had been following the reports on academic fraud that began appearing with increasing frequency in science magazines. Then in 1985, the first comprehensive book on the subject was published, giving Mullin a text for his course.

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Dayton, a professor of oceanography, had been teaching a course in the philosophy of science and had become interested in arguments about objectivity and advocacy. He wanted to explore in a seminar “the fine line” in science between pursuing a theory and faking evidence to prove a point.

Some theoreticians “see science as a judicial system where you have two advocates and maybe the truth will win out,” Dayton said. “Most of the rest of us think that the truth is really the essence of what we’re trying to find out, and that we really aren’t advocates. But are we really not advocates?”

History of Frauds

The seminar began with a brief history of scientists now believed to have committed fraud, including Galileo, Mendel and Newton. According to Mullin and Dayton, the 2nd-Century astronomer and mathematician, Ptolemy, gave himself away when measurements he claimed as his own turned out to have been taken on another part of the planet.

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After examining case histories up to the present, the seminar turned to questionable practices short of outright falsification. Those included filching from other researchers’ grant proposals, sequestering data from other investigators, misleading granting agencies in order to get funding, and various data-doctoring techniques with such provocative titles as cutting, trimming and cooking data.

“We do it all the time,” Dayton said of cutting and trimming. “We have a set of points that follow along a line that we expect the points to follow, and there’s an (apparently aberrant point). A lot of people just throw it out. . . .

“So there’s a whole gradient of everyday scientific behavior which really involves cutting and trimming and cooking your data. And it goes back to some ideas that have been called ‘theory-ladenness'--that you really have your theories that you’re proving, not negating, in your mind as you set up your research.”

Ragen, in his third year of work toward a Ph.D. in marine biology and ecology, said he was surprised during the seminar by how many students believed advocacy was justified and that they could “speak as an advocate under the cloak of science.”

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“It doesn’t surprise me in that that’s what a lot of us would like to do--we’d like to express our views and that’s one of the reasons that maybe we’re in science,” Ragen said. “What surprises me is that there isn’t a realization that you can get caught--in that your credibility is very important as a scientist, and once you fail and become an advocate, you lose all your credibility. So you become almost useless, in a sense.”

Stealing Ideas

Another subject that came up for discussion was the opportunities the system creates for theft of ideas.

Because proposals for research must be reviewed before funding is granted, and findings must be reviewed again before work can be published, competitors involved in the peer review process have several opportunities to steal (or squelch) their fellow scientists’ ideas.

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“Because we have a peer review system, you are required to expose your ideas ahead of time, before you can establish ownership of them by publication,” Mullin said. And, Dayton added, “You can be ripped off at either stage.”

Fear of theft has bred a reluctance to share ideas freely, at least in advance of publication, Dayton said. He said even he had become skittish: “I try to hide ideas from my proposals.”

In the final weeks, the class turned to the question of rectifying the problem. The participants discussed retractions, errata, “and other forms of mea culpa .” Finally, they considered the efficacy of self-policing, whistle-blowing and court action.

One suggestion that arose in the last meetings was that journals and professional societies give more special awards for unusually good work. In that way, participants suggested, they might counteract the growing trend toward quantity over quality.

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Asked whether he saw changes occurring that would discourage dishonesty, Dayton said recently: “I guess I’m a little cynical about that. That’s exactly why we wanted to do the seminar, long before Slutsky. So that our students at least would be brought to face these issues, and they start at home.”

“Where students learn is in . . . watching the behavior of their mentors,” Mullin added. “And unless ethics are perceived as being important--not just important but absolutely fundamental--you can have all the seminars you want and it will not have its effect.”


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