Richard G. Petty, MD

Scientific Misconduct

I don’t think that anyone can derive any pleasure at all in the public disgrace of a human being, and the reports about the South Korean cloning scientist Hwang Woo-suk are particularly sad.

This case is enormously high-profile because the claims were so extraordinary, and also because his claims created false hope for hundreds of thousands of people around the globe. I respect and understand the opinions of people who felt, on moral or religious grounds, that the research should not have been attempted at all: it is an incredibly complex ethical issue.

But I would like to focus on the issue of scientific misconduct in general. The sad truth is that it is not uncommon at all. In June of 2005, the journal Nature published an important paper entitled “Scientists behaving badly.” In a survey of more than 3,000 scientists, over a quarter admitted to some failings in their work. Few of them had made things up, or cooked results, but there were even some of those.

Scientific and medical journals, as well as the Government, who commonly hands out a lot of research grants, are all engaged in very serious discussions about this problem, as are pharmaceutical companies, who fund a huge chunk of research. I spent over twenty years working in or administering laboratories, and during that time I have had first hand knowledge of three cases in which data was fabricated and there were major consequences for senior academics. In each case it was a junior researcher who cooked the books and the senior author had just tacked his name onto the publications. I have never published as many papers as I could have, because I always refused to be a “passenger” on a paper: someone who gets authorship credit even if it was not their own research. It’s often done to swell a curriculum vita. But I didn’t want to do that unless I was sure of everything in the paper, and that meant being at the bench doing the work. Somebody was once teasing me and told me that it’s because I’m a Virgo. Well, maybe. I don’t know enough about such things.

So why on earth do people cheat at anything? I find it difficult to understand in science and medicine because my whole life, since I was a child, has been directed toward finding Truth. And to mess with that is almost sacrilegious. Interestingly, many of the cheaters are actually the most gifted of people. Though that’s not always true. The first personal experience that I had was more than 20 years ago, when a more senior member of the department, who was not at all productive, took some of my data out of a file in my desk, and then presented it at a meeting as his own work. Well, I was but a tadpole back then, so I was told to grin and bear it.

Although it is complex, I think that the main reasons for misconduct are:

1. Personal: the career pyramid has steep sides and some people want to climb to the top, come what may. It’s really no different from someone putting cork in his baseball bat, or greasing a cricket ball.

2. Financial: people have told me, though without evidence, that they have changed or withheld information because that’s what the grant-giving body wanted. I once, and only once, had someone tell me what results I would produce if I did a certain study for his company. We were talking about my department being paid a great deal of money to do the work. I am quite sure that his company didn’t know about him saying that, but it was enough for me to show him the door.

3. Some people are so convinced that they are correct, that they fail to see any flaws in their arguments. I remember once seeing an elderly Nobel Prize winner completely misquote some research data so that it fit with his hypothesis. I happened to know about it because I was involved with the research that he quoted. There was no malice involved: that was just the way that he saw things.

4. Hubris: I wonder if this was at play in the Hwang Woo-suk case in Korea? If enough people tell you it’s great, and you so want to believe that you’ve made the breakthrough that everyone wants, eventually you may believe it yourself. The scientist just gets carried along on the bandwagon. And it is not just Hollywood and the Opera that has prima donnas!

I was sorry, recently, to hear of the passing a very fine English physician who once roasted the editor of the British Medical Journal for having had the temerity to reject one of her papers! Because of course she was right, and the editor and the reviewers were not smart enough to understand her work. And yes, science, like any other area of human life, has its sociopaths who will do anything for power and glory; and its hangers on and wannabes who need to do something to say in the loop.

I keep coming back to the same points: we have been given the ability to do this work. We are but stewards of our gifts and of the public’s money. We own neither, and millions of people wait anxiously for us to give them the help and the advice that they need.

So as sad as I am to see the public humiliation of Hwang Woo-suk, I have a final question: How could anyone ever betray that trust?

Addendum: As an addendum to the entry on scientific misconduct: on January 16th, the BBC reported yet another case of scientific misconduct in a study from Norway that was published in the journal the Lancet in October 2005. The Lancet study was entitled "non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and the risk of oral cancer.

According to the reports that have emerged today it appears that the data were entirely fabricated, with 250 of the 908 alleged patients in the study sharing the same birthday.

If the reports are all accurate, it is another tragedy. And I am going to ask again:

The public and the grant giving bodies work hard to give scientists the tools to do research to improve the quality of all our lives. How could anyone ever betray that trust?

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About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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One Response to “Scientific Misconduct”
  1. Hwang Woo-suk Is Sorry, But Not Really Sorry

    Last night I caught a piece of a press conference with disgraced Korean stem-cell scientist, Dr. Hwang Woo-suk. In short, I would sum it up with these four words: sorry, but not sorry. Let me explain. Hwang’s performance was…

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