Saturday, February 11, 2006

How Ethical Are Scientists?

I suppose the title to this post would infer that I think the majority of scientists aren't ethical, and that's not the case at all. But there's a significant number of them out there that clearly have a problem with ethics. What seems to be a big problem with this group of people is that for some reason they don't seem to see there being any problem with doing something that's unethical, and not just something small but something that would be seen without much difficulty by the average Jane or Joe as unethical or certainly very ethically questionable. The case in point that caught my attention was University Panel Faults Cloning Co-Author in today's NY Times.

The article is about Dr. Gerald Schatten, a biologist at the University of Pittsburgh, who allegedly co-authored the now infamous human cloning paper published in Science with the South Korean scientist Dr. Hwang Woo Suk. Schatten's co-authoring in this case seemed to have amounted to little more than doing what he could (what that was is not made clear) to help Hwang have a paper addressing his cloning work, or rather his fabricated cloning work, accepted in Science after it was originally rejected by this prestigious journal. For this effort Schatten was made a co-author on a paper he apparently never bothered to critically read or otherwise in anyway contribute, he was provided $40,000 in honorariums, and he applied through Hwang for a $200,000 grant which was expected to be renewed yearly. While the grant would otherwise seem to be an unreasonable expectation, it needs to be recalled that Hwang, after his paper was published and the acclaim of the world and his country was being lavished upon him, was knee deep in money from the South Korean government and other sources, so funding Schatten would not have been beyond him to do.

Schatten at some point clearly went over the edge on ethical behavior, and of late we read about doctors receiving drug company honorariums that are far beyond anything the doctors in question could legitimately be doing besides being bought off. These are the more egregious examples of late, but what has me wondering are those cases that aren't likely to make it into the Times but are otherwise a part of the standard operating procedure in academia. It's the petty ethical breaches that occur so commonly which, I believe, lead to something extraordinary as exemplified by Schatten.

Why do American professors like foreign-trained graduate students and post-docs? Many would argue that it's because they can't find Americans who are equally as qualified because we're not pumping out the students with the necessary training and abilities. While there's undoubtedly truth to this I also see that the foreigners in question are more apt to work long hours, not take their vacations, and otherwise be unaware of their benefits/rights when it comes to employment in this country. Those that are aware are often are too afraid to ask questions out of fear of losing their position or their visa renewal and the complications that come with that, and there are a lot of professors out there who unconcernedly take advantage of this, sometimes deliberately and other times by deliberate ignorance.

At a local ivy-league university post-docs are paid for 11 vice 12 months, with the expectation that that 1 month without pay (that doesn't really occur, the 11 months of pay is pro-rated over 12 months) is for vacation. Would you like to guess how many post-docs actually get a month off? Do you think there's anyone tracking this? This struck me especially as when I was in the Navy every year you earned 30 days of time off, though the Navy seems to be more enlightened than this particular university inasmuch as we were given 30 days of paid time off. As a supervisor as I was expected to track how much time off my people took and ensure that they in fact did take time off before they lost the time they may have accrued (anything above, if I remember correctly, 65 days could be lost.) If any of your subordinates actually lost time, or went for more than two years without having some time off, you could easily find yourself
in a difficult situation with your own superiors. How many universities have such oversight?

How many post-docs or graduates work at the whim of their mentor/principal investigator on projects that stretch on for years without going anywhere, but especially not resulting in a paper of any significance that would in turn allow the student/post-doc themselves to go somewhere to get their careers on track? How many institutions have an oversight committee for this?

One more thing, which Schatten stands accused of is phantom-authorship on a scientific paper. How many scientists out there find their names on papers that they've essentially not done a thing for? In Schatten's case he seems to have managed to at least get the paper published in Science, no small thing on its own, but did he deserve co-authorship for a paper he didn't contribute a smidgen of work to, especially when his services were otherwise very clearly rewarded? Many senior scientists find their names appearing miraculously on papers that they haven't contributed to in any substantive way, and while they may not be directly making money for this in the way that Schatten did their remuneration arrives in other ways. This amazes me and it's common, so in a strict sense were Schatten to be taken to the dunking chair for this one he'd have a LOT of company. How is such fraud allowed to happen, and how in the world can anyone justify doing it?

I suppose those who otherwise may be inclined to think they're somehow above their fellow citizens intellectually can easily find themselves in situations that are beyond the ethical pale, but since they see themselves as different it seems that how the rules apply to them should also be different. As I said, the egregious cases like Schatten's make for a lot of head shaking, but the fact is that the scientific community is largely unchecked and unregulated when it comes to how it treats its people and how it obtains its money (there are more restrictions on the money and how it's used, though how it's brought in clearly seems to often enough fall into a gray zone), and it shouldn't come as a surprise that abuses will occur, and indeed be institutionalized. It's not just the scientific community, these problems are some of the prime reasons that graduate students have tried to put together a union, which has been strongly opposed by most universities.

Cleaning house of people like Schatten is easy enough, just give them enough bad press and cut their funding and they're gone - but that's not going to solve a ethical problems that need to be more closely looked at and corrected for, and which are far more pervasive then I think many would care to admit.


Anonymous Brian G said...

Something IS being done about some of these issues, at least. As of... '96, any research science graduate student program which receives federal funding is supposed to teach a course on ethics in science. (as I'm about to return to grad school to finish that pesky degree, I'll find out if it's survived) Admittedly, it's only one course, and an awful lot of my fellow bio students at the time thought it was something of a joke, but I found it eye-opening.

One of the more interesting concepts, which I've only actually seen practiced by one journal (my experience is sadly limited), is that for purposes of accountability, all the authors of a paper are supposed to sign a document attesting to having contributed in some significant way to the work presented. That said, if it came out later that someone had dropped the ball, or merely had their name tacked on as Schatten did, then they could be penalized in some fashion.

But then, how many people actually read the notices of retraction or correction that some journals publish?

4:31 PM  
Blogger James said...

A course in ethics in science is good window dressing to show that "something's" being done to address the problem, but without oversight and an active commitment on the part of the science departments to walk the walk there's not much that has changed. My guess is that the people attending these courses aren't the senior folks who every bit require it as the people coming up in the system do. Maybe it'll take a generation or two before the changes with regard to abuse in many scientific departments and within the discipline itself (and in truth, this sort of problem stretches beyond just science departments) really take hold.

The practice of having everyone sign something saying that they actually made a contribution to a paper is certainly a start, and may serve as a reminder to those who haven't what the process is really about, but then such people tend to have interesting and imaginative self-justifications for what and why they do what they do and on some level my guess is that they'd not have a problem signing such a statement as in their minds they meet the criteria. Now why they should see it so much differently than most of the rest of us is hard to pin down, but that they do seems pretty apparent. On the whole the system doesn't aggressively penalize this sort of thing and in turn it continues to be a problem.

Science is predicated on the notion that it's self-correcting, that the high priests and priestesses of the discipline will keep it on the right track and, for as much as it's possible, truthful. I believe on the whole this is by and large the case, but there still seems to be a lack of desire to truly punish those who abuse the system or otherwise take advantage of it, or worse, its junior practitioners, and I believe it's important that this be cleaned up.

10:16 PM  
Anonymous Alejandro said...

With regards to foreign graduate students, there is one more reason why they are soemtimes favored by professors and graduate programs: often foreign graduate students come with their own funding. Many countries have for decades sponsored the graduate research of their citizens. Until recently, countries like China and India have not had universities with levels of research and education similar to the U.S.A. and Europe. So those countries gambled by sponsoring their students to study at our institutions. Sure, most of those students would end up staying in the West with lucrative jobs, but the few who returned to their home country would greatly enrich the academic and economic power of their native country. For American professors, they received free qualified students.

3:42 PM  

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