The basic tenet we should honour is that our behaviour should never violate principles of integrity.
There are innumerable instances where dishonest means have been adopted by intellectuals of distinction. Many of them lost the honour and prestige they built through hard work for several years. A research scholar should never even dream of resorting to any unethical act. Achieving personal glory through deceit would never give us peace of mind. The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) said, “In law a man is guilty when he violates the rights of others. In ethics he is guilty if he only thinks of doing so.”
This may be read along with the pithy statement of Einstein - “Relativity applies to physics, not ethics”. He also said, “The ideals which have always shone before me and filled me with the joy of living are goodness, beauty, and truth. To make a goal of comfort or happiness has never appealed to me; a system of ethics built on this basis would be sufficient only for a herd of cattle.”
Listening to these great men is quite fine. But we should know fairly well the norms of ethics in research. What would amount to an unethical act, which we should shun with all our might?
The basic tenet we should honour is that our professional behaviour with other researchers, past or present, should never violate the principles of integrity. Our research findings should be the product of our original work of a genuine nature. The studies should be transparent. The test results should be real, and not cooked up or fabricated. Communication to other researchers in the same field should be honest. We should keep our word. We should never attempt to mislead them. We should have an open mind while discussing our work with others in the field.
Healthy criticism should not deter us from continued effort. Never disclose the secrets of your organisation or unpublished data belonging to others. Keep them confidential.
In research in the discipline of social sciences, we may have to gather data on diverse aspects of people. They may even share purely private and personal information with us. We have to protect their privacy. We should tell them beforehand the purpose of our study, as also the way in which data pertaining to them would be used by us. We should not publish any personal data without their permission.
A medical researcher should never disclose the health information relating to a patient without the latter's consent. Human dignity should be respected at all times, especially when dealing with vulnerable population.
You might have heard of the notorious Tuskegee study of untreated syphilis in black males in the 1930s held in Alabama in the U.S. The scandal became public only in 1972. That was an instance of an unethical and outrageous experiment on human beings.
Research on animals should be limited to properly designed experiments honouring principles of ethical handling. Whatever we do in research should be with extreme care and attention. There is no room for negligence or indifference. Persistence will help us to try again and again enthusiastically despite temporary setbacks. Further, we should be honest to ourselves when we analyse data. We should be totally free from bias or wishful thinking. The objective of our research should not be amassing illegal wealth of any kind.
We should not violate any copyright, patent, or any form of intellectual property right. Never use someone else's unpublished data without his permission. Give due credit whenever you use material from others. Never do anything that may damage your credibility.
Researchers in different fields may look at the same problem from different angles. For example, evolving more effective methods of using insecticides for enhancing agricultural output may be viewed from a purely technical standpoint by an agricultural scientist. It may be unethical if he is totally blind to the harmful effects of insecticides on farmers' health.
Better crops should not be accompanied by sick farmers. Perhaps the second aspect may be highlighted by an environmentalist or a researcher in ecology and public health.
We should not publish the same material in the same form in two journals, hoping that the publishers may not discover the trick. A supervisor should give genuine guidance safeguarding the best interest of the research fellow, and desist from any attempt to exploit him.
There have been tricksters in search of name and fame as scientists, who have come forward with deceptive findings based on forgery or fabricated data. They represent an ominous weakening of the norm of scientific truthfulness. Such efforts that do not fall in the category of genuine research should be shunned.
You must have heard about the shame and tragedy that gripped the South Korean biomedical scientist Hwang Woo Suk of stem cells fame, who sprung up as a national hero and then rose to international stardom. Hwang's lab was the only one in the world that claimed remarkable breakthroughs in cloning human cells, making new human embryos from single adult cells. Cells cultivated from such embryos, called stem cells, could be crucial for studying diseases and medical treatment. His research papers appeared in the prestigious ‘Science' journal. Later on his claims were found to be fraudulent. Hwang had to resign from his Seoul National University in March 2006 and apologise for his actions.
There is another incident involving two British scientists. In 1912, Charles Dawson and Arthur Smith Woodward produced fragments of the skull of the so-called Piltdown Man, claimed to be discovered by workmen in gravel pits in Sussex. They suggested that Piltdown man represented an evolutionary missing link between ape and man. It was after 40 years that Piltdown Man was shown to be a composite forgery. It was made out of a medieval human skull, the 500-year-old lower jaw of an orangutan, and chimpanzee fossil teeth.
Another story relates to “painting the mice”. In 1974, Dr. William Summerlin, a top-ranking transplantation immunologist at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, used a marker pen to make black patches of fur on white mice in an attempt to prove his new skin graft technique. He claimed that there would be no rejection in his method. But he appeared on the front pages of newspapers, not as a discoverer but as a perpetrator of fraud. The expression “painting the mice” has come to mean fraud in research.
A perpetual motion machine claimed to have been invented by Charles Redheffer drew large crowds in a paid exhibition in New York in 1813. The machine was a fraud.
Paul Kammerer (1880-1926), an Austrian scientist, brought forth his ‘Lamarckian inheritance'. He claimed to have proved that organisms may acquire characteristics and pass them to their offspring. His experiments with toads were a fabrication. Black ink had been secretly injected into the hind legs of the toads. He was exposed. He committed suicide perhaps because of the humiliation.
Shinichi Fujimura, a Japanese archaeologist born in 1950, earned fame by claiming to have dug up stones backing up to 500,000 years or more. Later on it was found that he had buried the artefacts and later on dug them up and presented them as old treasures. In a public appearance, he bowed his head in shame and said, “I had been tempted by the devil.”
Jan Henrik Schön, a young researcher at Bell Laboratories, published a dozen papers on his discoveries in advanced electronics in journals including ‘Nature' at the turn of the century. The findings were later found to be a hoax.
These real stories have been related to establish the priceless value of ethics in research. Exaggeration of a result, disregarding counter-evidence, is as unhealthy as falsification of data or experiments. Deliberate misrepresentation of an inference and its perpetration will certainly land the fraudulent person in trouble.
‘Cutting corners', a euphemism for taking wrong shortcuts or deliberate distortion of evidence, will have the same fate.
Honesty is the best policy in research as well.
Keywords: Research ethics, Tuskegee study, Hwang Woo Suk, Charles Dawson, Arthur Smith Woodward, Piltdown Man, 'painting the mice', William Summerlin, Charles Redheffer, Paul Kammerer, ‘Lamarckian inheritance', Shinichi Fujimura, Jan Henrik Schön