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Saffron Lily (@saffronlilyillustration) for The Xylom

When Hubris Leads to Scientific Fraud

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