Ebony Gunwhy   |   2/ 3/ 2022   |   Reading Time: 8 Minutes

When Hubris Leads to Scientific Fraud

Saffron Lily (@saffronlilyillustration) for The Xylom

How One “Extraordinary” Scientist’s Academic Misconduct Is Just the Tip of the Iceberg, and What We Can Do About It.


In 1981, in a Harvard-affiliated cardiac research laboratory at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, John Darsee’s colleagues witnessed him fraudulently mislabelling data recordings, in an attempt to falsify results.


One of the objectives of Darsee’s research was to investigate drug efficacy in mitigating muscle damage in heart attack victims. To do this, the department had received funding from the National Institute of Health (NIH), on a study investigating animal models for use in the research. The mislabelled data involved an electrocardiogram of a dog, which he labelled 24 hours, 72 hours, one week, and two weeks, respectively, despite all only being taken that very same afternoon.


This led to an investigation and resulted in not only the firing of Darsee and a ban of receiving federal grant money for the next ten years but the retraction of over 80 papers and abstracts in his name.*


Despite the severe repercussions associated with scientific misconduct – to both the researcher’s profession and all those whom such research may affect - this is not the only instance of falsification or fabrication of data in science. Combined, the top three researchers listed on the Retraction Watch Leaderboard have contributed to the retraction of over 400 papers.


In a recent anonymous survey conducted by researchers in The Netherlands and detailed on a preprint on MetaArXiv, it was found that approximately 8% of researchers admitted to falsification or fabrication of results in their work, with just over half admitting to engaging in questionable research practices.

In a recent anonymous survey conducted by researchers in The Netherlands and detailed on a preprint on MetaArXiv, it was found that approximately 8% of researchers admitted to falsification or fabrication of results in their work, with just over half admitting to engaging in questionable research practices. Questionable research practices were regarded as being less severe than outright falsification or fabrication of research, relating to acts such as omitting less positive results or possible shortcomings in methodology, criticality, or record-keeping; still, this is not good science. Publication pressure was found to be the greatest motivator leading to questionable research practices. However, motivation for scientific misconduct may arise for a number of reasons, not all of which are ill-intentioned. A combination of funding, job security, cultural, or societal pressures, and ongoing scrutiny can coerce a researcher into misconduct.


Nonetheless, the lure of pleasure gained through personal achievement is an additional factor that should not be overlooked. Does scientific hubris compromise integrity and objectivity in research?



Saffron Lily (@saffronlilyillustration) for The Xylom

 

The pleasure gained through achievement can be exacerbated by a competitive spirit and pride for one’s own work, making it difficult sometimes to remember the overall arching aim of a research project. Is this competitiveness a part of human nature? Do we lose focus on the bigger picture when zooming in on details? In a study conducted by researchers at the Sakarya and Eskişehir Osmangazi universities in Turkey, a positive correlation was found between a university student’s scientific motivation and their setting of achievement-specific goals. This indicates that focusing on minute, attainable goals rather than the overall end-goal, may be an innate human attribute that encourages productivity. However, how beneficial is this in the long run? We need to work on striking that balance between optimal performance towards both short and long-term goals – constantly reminding ourselves of the need to remain objective when our ultimate aim is for worthwhile results.


As a young scientist, I sometimes struggled to separate my own sense of self-achievement from my work. Being competitively inclined combined with an inability not to take constructive criticism personally, I often felt compelled to mould my line of research into more palatable forms. By keeping my approach amenable to others, I could avoid unnecessary ridicule or scrutiny. Furthermore, knowing the sort of results which your supervisor or department hopes for can motivate you to look specifically for those results, ignoring other important outcomes which may crop up along the way. I often fantasised about being able to bring monumental advances to my field each week, so that I could brag about them to my supervisor at our weekly meetings. And within certain fields, such as statistics, it can be easy to tweak the parameters to look for those results. Yet, once you continue along a line of research with a specific motivation or desire in mind, you start travelling further away from the path of objectivity.


In a 1983 issue of BioScience, it is reported that “By the age of 33, Darsee had been offered an assistant professorship at Harvard and had published nearly 100 papers and abstracts. […] Many marvelled at his prodigious output. In retrospect, that should have been a clue.”


All my supervisor ever wished for was evidence that I was at least trying, whether my efforts procured viable results or not was beside the point. In fact, I feel she most likely expected failure more than I realised.

Although it may also have been disappointing for my supervisor not to gain research affirming results, I realise now that my error was in thinking that that disappointment was directed at me, and my efforts. All my supervisor ever wished for was evidence that I was at least trying, whether my efforts procured viable results or not was beside the point. In fact, I feel she most likely expected failure more than I realised. Not due to my skill level - although perhaps partly, as I was only an MSc level researcher - but since failure in scientific research is common, it is just as important for us to report those failures as well as our successes. This is how research progresses.



Saffron Lily (@saffronlilyillustration) for The Xylom

Moreover, it’s pointless to try to avoid receiving comments or criticism on your work. Science is a collaborative effort, where constructive criticism is an essential component for improving scientific output. Not being able to take criticism well can damage the integrity of research – particularly if it motivates scientific misconduct. In this way, your work will always be biased to your own, or someone else’s viewpoint.


 

Undoubtedly, those flaws which are ingrained within a system hold a certain amount of culpability when it comes to the pleasure we gain from our successes as scientists. In a 2017 edition of the consensus study report “Fostering Integrity in Research”, the U.S. National Academies compiled the findings of several surveys and reports investigating how particular research environments can affect integrity in research. It is surmised that the amount of jobs available for Ph.D. students upon graduation is much smaller than the number of graduates; and of those who manage to reach tenure, the hypercompetitive environment within which they work challenges them to “spend more time writing grants and less time doing research”. In addition, there are institutions globally offering cash bonuses for publishing in prestigious papers. Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physicist from Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan, tells Nature in a 2006 article that such incentives have had a “devastating effect” with researchers “rushing to publish by hook or by crook, and scientific and academic ethics are ignored in this haste.”


Undoubtedly, those flaws which are ingrained within a system hold a certain amount of culpability when it comes to the pleasure we gain from our successes as scientists.

There is already growing support for initiatives such as The Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), developed in 2012 during the Annual Meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology, which “recognizes the need to improve the ways in which the outputs of scholarly research are evaluated”. They encourage all interested individuals and organisations to sign their petition, which has already received a significant amount of worldwide backing. Their aim is not only to raise awareness but also to implement changes to current publication practices, alleviating associated pressures.


There is also a growing need for transparency in research funding. While great scrutiny has been placed on researchers and the scientific process itself, there is not enough discussion around where the actual funding for research comes from. While a proportion of funding comes from institutions, government agencies, and not-for-profits, a large proportion of funding comes from industry or for-profit agencies. According to The State of U.S. Science and Engineering 2020 report, approximately 73% of R&D funding in 2017 was provided by the business sector. Undeniably, science may be dependent upon this funding, and partnerships between science and industry can work harmoniously to expedite scientific progress and deliver valuable research outputs. However, ‘for-profit’ industries are motivated by making sales, creating a platform for bias in research. There are, in particular, systems that exploit achievement goal theory through the offering of incentives, thus introducing bias. Merchants of Doubt, such as the tobacco, oil, and pharmaceutical industries have all used financial incentives to spur scientific misinformation.



Saffron Lily (@saffronlilyillustration) for The Xylom


Scientific misconduct and the spread of misinformation tarnishes the credibility of science, damaging the public’s trust in science and healthcare professionals, but also endangering others. Additionally, scientific progression is ultimately hindered - it becomes difficult to replicate fabricated experiments. It can also damage the integrity of another scientist’s work when they cite a peer-reviewed publication in their own work, which later becomes retracted. Stringent measures such as peer review and Research Ethics Boards exist as preventative measures for scientific misconduct. However, a certain level of autonomy must also be awarded to researchers in order to foster an environment of trust, where there is a willingness to engage with one another. Therefore, a view to incorporating ethics and research integrity training into the core curriculum of scientific subjects should be encouraged.


There are, in particular, systems that exploit achievement goal theory through the offering of incentives, thus introducing bias. Merchants of doubt, such as the tobacco, oil, and pharmaceutical industries have all used financial incentives to spur scientific misinformation.

While I aimed to discuss this issue from the perspective of pleasure, there exist clear, unavoidable, and inevitable overlaps with the theme of pain: while a scientist may gain pleasure from their achievements, the cost of fabricating data can be the cause of both figurative and physical pain for others. The research establishments associated with Darsee lost years of work and funding in attempting to repair the damage that his fraudulent labelling caused. Brigham and Women’s Hospital were required to return $122,371 of their funding (over $375,000 when factoring in inflation) to the NIH. Meanwhile, NIH’s investigation into Darsee led to the retraction of papers from as far back as 1978, from research conducted at Emory University, even pre-dating his time at Harvard.


The epitome of advancement in science is that of collaboration and scientific objectivity. It is important not to lose sight of this aim - especially when working in a field where the overall aim is that of helping others. Both Darsee and just over 40% of the researchers on Retraction Watch’s Leaderboard were known to be working in sub-branches of medicine or life sciences. If Darsee’s misconduct had gone unnoticed, the health of countless sufferers of heart disease could have been at risk. On a more positive note, the Darsee incident has contributed to more attentive attitudes regarding misconduct in scientific research, with public agencies such as the NIH, the Public Health Service, and the National Science Foundation since redefining standards and publishing guidelines on the topic. Nevertheless, we, as individual researchers must also do our own part in combatting misconduct, doing our best to remember that our research can often extend to affect the lives of many more besides our own.


 

*Editor's Note: After the publication of the story, we were informed that while The New York Times and Nature have articles claiming that over 80 of Darsee's papers have been retracted or withdrawn, the Retraction Watch Database has only recorded 17 such retractions.

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Ebony Gunwhy

Ebony Gunwhy is an emerging writer based in the seaside town of Galway, Ireland. She has written scientific non-fiction for the Irish Association of Physicists in Medicine, the Journal of the European SocieTy for Radiotherapy and Oncology (ESTRO), Imperial College London’s I, Science magazine, and the Substack newsletter Ours to Save. As a 2021 Science-me a Story finalist, she also has written a children’s fictional short story which is featured on the University of Liverpool’s Literature and Science Hub. When not researching, reading, or writing, Ebony dedicates her time to amateur adventuring, long-distance running, and laughing at her own dad jokes.