Stool Pigeons Wanted

A researcher argues that encouraging scientists to keep an eye on their colleagues can combat "irresponsible" scholarship.
November 21, 2005

Nobody likes a tattle tale, but some savvy squealers might serve the science community well.

In order to find out how researchers might best intervene when they smell a lab rat, Gerald Koocher, dean of the Simmons School for Health Studies, in Boston, is embarking on a two-year study -- "Collegial Defense Against Irresponsible Science” -- that will compile a reference of best practices.

The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Research Integrity, and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, will survey 12,000 biomedical and social- behavioral researchers who work with human subjects to find out about any run-ins they’ve had with “bad science,” from skirting minor regulations to trumping up data, done by colleagues or assistants.

Koocher will follow up with some of the respondents and “try to ascertain how often colleagues notice each other doing [bad] things,” Koocher said, and what might “prevent them from intervening.”

In the end, Koocher will compile a free, online manual with cloaked case-studies that suggest how a researcher might not stand idly by when something is amiss. “You have to give people ways of approaching colleagues that do not seem confrontational,” Koocher said. One of his favorites is the Bullwinkle approach: “I’m confused about what got through here,” Koocher said, suggesting a line a curious colleague might employ.

He added that it’s important to realize that there is “a continuum of evil. You’ve got some people who are psychopathic, and just want to advance their careers by systematically focusing and concealing data,” Koocher said, adding that it would be difficult to ever expect colleagues to consistently penetrate such a fortress of deception.

“On the other end, you’ve got the good person and good scientist who cuts a corner or two because it’s easier … maybe doesn’t identify some of the limitations of the study, or starts running subjects without telling an institutional review board all the details.”

Still, he said that if colleagues are more active in oversight, maybe even some of the serious evil-doers can be brought to justice. Koocher said he was encouraged by the case of Luk Van Parijs, an associate professor in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Cancer Research who was found to have fabricated data. Parijs was turned in by colleagues and then fired by MIT.

Koocher said the study may also lead to the development of intervention procedures that will allow colleagues to step in without worrying about harming their chances for tenure, or about generating bad blood if it turns out nothing shady is going on.

"It is not uncommon for scientists to confide they know of scientific misconduct by their peers, and yet few cases are ultimately reported,” Koocher said. "The goal is to try to get the field to begin self-policing in a way that's never been done before. Colleagues speaking to their colleagues is the front line of defense against irresponsible science.”


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