Integrity in Science — Why it matters

Research partnerships between industry and academic institutions have more than doubled in the last five years, 50% of which are in the life sciences. This significant shift to seeking partnerships with academic scientists is evidenced by the fact that almost 90% of publications authored by corporate researchers are in collaboration with academic or government labs.

While corporations are known to protect their property, they see the benefit of such collaborations in producing high-quality research. The value of such alliances is also apparent because the public gives much weight to academic research as unbiased independent confirmation. Corporations should not fear associations with academics who themselves are fearless in defending their research, and should legitimately want to have such endorsements to back their products.  

Given the current emphasis in academia on translational research, it is more critical than ever before that ethics and integrity be in the forefront of all scientific endeavours.

Ethics and integrity in science are issues that have been in the spotlight recently, and are gaining momentum in many discussion forums and leading journals. The pursuit of truth above all else seems to be a fading tenet, as the need to increase publication quotas is tenuously balanced with career progression for many who love research. As reports of scientific fraud increase, and social media opinions on medical topics that are not based on good science flourish, it is becoming harder for scientists to retain their credibility and engage with the public. It is therefore urgent that the scientific community upholds the highest standards of ethics and integrity.

This issue has led to the development of a Code of Ethics by the World Economic Forum Young Scientists Community — a group of researchers under the age of 40 from diverse fields and from around the world. Their reflections and consultations with other researchers and ethicists identified seven principles that form the basis of the code that stakeholders are invited to endorse, with the aim of shaping ethical behavior in scientists and facilitating a cultural shift in scientific institutions. This code ranges from fundamental social behaviors such as ‘Minimize harm’ — as in damage to public health or waste of research dollars — to issues that are potentially contentious and subject to interpretation, such as ‘Pursue the truth’. Overall the code has stimulated much discussion, and serves as a timely reminder of the social and moral obligations of those who conduct research.

There are striking examples of scientists throughout history with a strong commitment to integrity and social responsibility. Rachel Louise Carson (1907-1964), is renowned for her work on pesticides and her campaign to alert the public of the harmful effects of DDT. Although she faced strong opposition from the chemical manufacturers, she urged awareness of the environmental impact of this chemical and advocated responsible use. Her work led to a grassroots environmental movement, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, and the banning of DDT use in the US six years after her death. Herbert Needleman, a child psychiatrist, is well known for his research on lead poisoning, and provided the first evidence that exposure to lead was associated with cognitive defects in children. His work was instrumental in the EPA mandate to remove lead from gasoline and interior paints.

Research integrity and social obligations are often based on individual value judgments. A researcher may decide to work in academia vs the commercial sector out of altruism and a desire to choose the research she wishes to pursue. For example a researcher working for Acme Pharmaceuticals may find that her research funding is determined by the potential for market share and financial benefit, while government and public funding sources may offer more flexibility in her choice of research topic, as well as autonomy in the discharge of social and moral obligations to the public. In either scenario, personal values come into play, which may be challenged by the interpretation and conclusions drawn from their research.

Ethics and integrity, loosely defined, is an intrinsic value system that governs the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, or acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Most people consider these as matters of morality or simple common sense. Given the range of disagreement on what constitutes ethical norms, the ‘common sense’ approach may in fact be overly simplistic, and depends instead on the context. Ethics in the medical sciences may have more direct and obvious application at the individual level as defined by the Hippocratic Oath “First, do no harm”, while issues like global warming tend to be more complex, requiring a broad range of stakeholders, e.g. politicians, economists and environmental scientists to work together to achieve an ethical outcome. In the latter scenario, each stakeholder would have a different set of moral and ethical responsibilities that makes it difficult to achieve a common goal.

Research institutions almost universally have policies and training modules in place that outline ethical standards for personal behaviour (e.g. workplace bullying and sexual harassment) and research conduct (e.g. animal ethics, plagiarism and fabrication of research data), and strict requirements for timely completion of these modules.

There is also much emphasis internationally on excellence in science, a recent example being the launch of a Regional Centre for Research Excellence at the University of the West Indies last month. Defining and measuring excellence is difficult and engenders much debate, particularly because of a lack of consensus across different disciplines. While there is disagreement on what constitutes excellence in research, “soundness” and “proper practice” that maintains ethics and scientific integrity remain a common thread across disciplines in the pursuit of excellence.

Regardless of cross-disciplinary variations, ethics and integrity in science is important because it promotes:

  • A quest for knowledge, truth, and minimizing error. This includes prohibitions against falsifying or misrepresenting research findings.
  • Collaboration and cooperation between institutions. The success of collaborative work is highly dependent on common ethical standards, and promotes trust, respect, and responsibility, as exemplified by the ICMJE guidelines for authorship.
  • Accountability in adhering to policies on the protection of human subjects, animal care and use, and declarations of conflicts of interest particularly for publicly funded research.
  • Public support and trust. While government resources vary according to economic and political interests and agendas, research funding from philanthropic organisations is a growing phenomenon worldwide.

The public relies on the integrity of scientists who in turn can earn their trust through a wide range of avenues, from providing expert testimony highlighting the legal and policy implications of research, to whistle-blowing on scientific misconduct, to advocating for public health policies. These avenues can be uncomfortable for many scientists by bringing them sharply into the public spotlight. Like Carson and Needleman, whose work led to major public policy shifts, the dilemma that scientists with integrity may face is criticism and backlash from opponents and industry groups who may have more to lose from these policy changes.

Overall, scientific integrity can be summarized in many ways, but simply stated, it is founded upon:

  • honesty in reporting data and results
  • objectivity in data analysis and interpretation
  • carefulness and record keeping of research activities
  • openness in collaboration
  • protecting patient confidentiality
  • respect and acknowledgement of all contributors, i.e. giving credit where credit is due
  • accountability and responsible publishing, and
  • communicating values through mentoring.

A model example of scientific integrity at its best occurred when a paper with significant clinical impact published in 2014 by the Journal of the American Medical Association, was discovered two years later to contain analysis errors because of miscoded data. The error turned the original findings on its head, spelling doom for the original published paper. In what has been highlighted as “a shining example of scientific integrity”, the lead author acted quickly to submit a ‘retract and replace’ article. JAMA agreed, using the opportunity to urge authors to share data and avoid the stigma of retraction when honest errors are discovered.

Think of the unthinkable when it comes to checking the quality of your data; If you think that all possible has been checked, check again; Always let others use your original data for new (or just the same) analyses.” (Marc Bonten 2017 Blog post)

This is in stark contrast to a situation where for example a freelancer commissioned by Acme Pharmaceuticals discovers errors in her data while drafting a manuscript, and assumes that data checks prior to write up were not part of her responsibilities. As outlined in my recent article on authorship, ethical conduct in reporting requires that all parties involved in the preparation of a manuscript for publication conduct multiple data checks and take responsibility for the contents of the published manuscript.

Correcting major errors prior to publication, even at the stage of checking the pre-publication proofs, may be a lengthy process if all authors need to approve these corrections, but it should be done even if it delays publication. The decision to correct the error should be made by all authors if the correction substantively changes the take-home message of the paper.

Reputable journals and scientists with ethical standards can work together to preserve the integrity of their research by correcting any errors as soon as they are discovered, and simply get on with the business of science.

At SugarApple Communications, our mission is to adhere to the highest ethical standards in the promotion of high quality research. Let us help you find the best way to reach your intended audience, and assist with writing, editing and statistics. Get in touch today and let’s talk.

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