Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Scientific Honesty

Whoa! Now that's a scary sounding title! "Scientific Honesty", honestly what does that even mean? Well, today is your lucky day, because I am going to try and answer just that. But before I get down to actually talking about scientific honesty, I think I should spend some time talking about how science works, so that I can give you an idea of why it is so important that a scientist be honest.

In science, especially in modern science, when you want to communicate your findings to others, the most common way is to publish a paper in a scientific journal. How this process works is that you write about your experiment, what the aim was, how you did it, what materials you used, what the results were and how you chose to interpret those results. Many people will know this format by the name of IMRAD (introduction, materials/methods, results and discussion). Once you have done this, you send your shiny new paper off to a scientific journal. The journal now passes the paper on to a set of independent people called referees (usually at least three). Each referee works independently. The referees' job is to take a look at the paper and firstly, either accept it for publication or reject it outright. Their second job is to make sure you know why your paper has been rejected or if it has been accepted, what more is required for it to be (in the referees' view) publishable. This could be something as simple as just correcting the grammar or could be as serious as a bit of missing data that the referee wants to see in the paper (anything more serious than that, and it will usually get rejected). Assuming your paper has been accepted, you get an opportunity to reply to the referees' comments and suggestions and make appropriate corrections. You then return the paper to the referees and your paper gets accepted for publication. This process is called "peer review", and scientists (quite snobbishly, in fact, but also justifiably) consider that the only scientific material worth reading is either peer reviewed or based on peer reviewed articles (like science books, which refer to tons and tons of peer reviewed papers but aren't themselves usually peer reviewed).

Now, hopefully you would have noted here that no one at any stage checks to see if your paper is factually correct. What this means, that if you have a nice beautifully written paper with tons of consistent but fake data, your paper will probably get published. So, dissemination of scientific material is based on trust. Another facet of this is that scientists are obviously not able to repeat every single experiment to see if the technique is valid, there just isn't time in a single person's life to validate every single technique they use. So, a physicist, for example, simply trusts that Einstein's Theory of Relativity is correct and uses those equations as a base for his experiments. Or a biologist assumes that DNA is the genetic material and goes right ahead and bases his work on that assumption. Now, just imagine if Einstein or Avery (the guy who proved that DNA is the genetic material) had faked their results!! Unless someone had attempted to validate the experiments soon, science could have been set back quite a few years by the time someone discovered the fraud. This is especially true today because of the sheer volume of papers being published every year.

So hopefully, now you see why it is so important for scientists to be honest in reporting their findings. Outside, they could be liars, cheats, murderers, whatever, but unless they are honest about reporting their results, they aren't scientists.

There is also another type of scientific honesty, and that involves the use of other people's work. Whenever you use other people's work, whether in a scientific context or not, you must give them credit. If you don't, that is plagiarism. And I for one, wouldn't be able to automatically trust the results of someone who plagiarised. In fact, one of the most famous discoveries of our time, the discovery of the structure of DNA, was the product of scientific dishonesty. Watson and Crick received critical unpublished data from the Rosalind Franklin's lab through a colleague of hers who did it to spite her. Without this data, it is quite possible, and even likely, that Franklin would have reached the solution before Watson and Crick did! In a further bit of irony, Rosalind Franklin died before the Nobel Prize was awarded for the discovery. Since the Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously, Watson, Crick and Wilkins (the colleague of Franklin's who gave Watson and Crick the data) got the Nobel Prize.Now this story illustrates how this second type of scientific dishonesty can powerfully affect people at a personal level. It has also made me (and I suspect many others) lose a great degree of respect for Watson and Crick, because while they have consequently made some brilliant further discoveries, this incident will mar their legacy for ever.

Fortunately, today, the penalties for scientific dishonesty are harsh, sometimes to the extent that the penalised person not only loses his or her job, but cannot find work in science anywhere in the world. And that is how it should be, since science cannot help but be based on the trust that scientists have in other scientists. If that trust is shaken, the very foundations on which science was built begin to collapse, and science as we know it will cease to exist.

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