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Department of Medical Chemistry, Biochemistry and Clinical Chemistry
Zagreb University School of Medicine
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Editorial

 
Lidija Bilić-Zulle. Scientific integrity – the basis of existence and development of science. Biochemia Medica 2007;17(2):143-50. http://dx.doi.org/10.11613/BM.2007.013
Department of Laboratory Diagnosis, Rijeka University Hospital Center and Department of Medical Informatics, Rijeka University School of Medicine, Rijeka, Croatia
*Corresponding author: lidija [dot] bilic-zulle [at] medri [dot] hr
 
Received: October 4, 2007                                                                                                   Accepted: October 24, 2007
 
 “Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.”
Albert Einstein
 
The characteristics of modern science
Science, research, and scientific way of thinking are an essential part of the today’s civilization. Development of science, its influence on the society and public interest in science reached the highest level in the 20th century and continue to grow. The number of scientists and the extent of scientific investigations grow daily and involve all segments of human civilization. The power and influence of a particular society nowadays is determined by the knowledge and scientific capacity. The most developed countries are focused on the development of science and knowledge. The beauty and importance of science also lie in its universality and belonging to whole mankind, and in its contribution to welfare in everyday life. Scientific achievements provide the basis for advancements in all fields of human activity. Science is the source of knowledge and its progress through scientific research. Science is meaningful and can prosper only if it is done in an honest way and according to the strict rules of scientific methodology providing the best possible proofs for scientific hypothesis and evidence of new knowledge (1).
Today, probably more than ever, scientific research and reports of its progress attract public attention. Due to the fast development of technology and media, scientific findings quickly find their use in our everyday life; in the field of medicine, they have a direct influence on human health and life (1,2). Although a large part of scientific research, especially basic science research, may not have a direct impact on everyday life, it may serve as a basis and an incentive for further studies whose findings will, in time, directly influence our life. Because of its importance for the society, one of the most relevant elements of research and a cornerstone of science is – integrity (1-3).
 
Scientific Integrity
Scientists do not have higher integrity than other people. As Jim Gilles writes in Nature (4), scientists lie, cheat and steal just like everybody else. However, their work is public and can be checked after it has been published (2,5). Scientific papers and publications are the main outcome of scientist’s work. Their number and impact are the criteria for someone’s scientific achievement and success. Scientific results do not exist until they are published. Unpublished data remain unrecognized by scientific and wider community. A scientific paper becomes permanent legacy and will be open to review and criticism forever. Dishonest scientists, if caught in their dishonest acts, tend to lose their respectability, trustworthiness, and membership in the scientific community (6,7).
Recent development of evidence based medicine founded on collecting and processing research data published in biomedical journals and other sources has emphasized the importance of integrity. Detailed search through all available published data on a particular topic in medicine and their gathering produce guidelines for daily medical practice that are based on evidence acquired by scientific research. Therefore, frauds and fake results once published can severely affect human health and life.
With the growth of science and increase in the number of scientists and scientific publications, scientific misconduct has also become more frequent. In the early 1980s, the question of scientific fraud became a public issue, especially as ever more cases of scientific fraud came to light in the United States of America (USA). Until then, scientific misconduct was considered an internal problem of scientific and academic institutions. However, with the increasingly important role and influence of science, especially biomedical sciences, in society the problem of scientific misconduct became a public issue. In the late 1980s, the United States Department of Health and Human Services and other health-related governmental bodies opened an office the task of which was to monitor research misconduct. In 1992, the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) was founded. The purpose of ORI is to promote integrity in biomedical research, establish criteria for good clinical practice, develop recommendations and guidelines for education in scientific integrity, and investigate cases of scientific misconduct in the field of biomedical sciences (7). Similar to ORI, numerous national bodies for ethics in science have been established all over the world. In Croatia, the Croatian Parliament has established national Committee of Ethics in Science and University Education. Its purpose is to promote the highest ethical values in science and to give expertise and advice in cases of scientific and academic misconduct (8).
Furthermore, several scientific journals enroll a research integrity editor like the Croatian Medical Journal has done. Editors of respectable scientific journals have established the Committee on Publication Ethics – COPE, an association of journal editors that promotes high integrity in scientific publication and also give advice and guidelines for acting in cases of scientific misconduct.
To prevent and detect misconduct in science, we must be able to recognize and learn about different forms of scientific misconduct not only to reveal it in the best interest of science, but also to educate and draw attention of scientists and, especially students who are just getting their education, so that acts of misconduct are not committed out of ignorance (7). Academic community cannot be detached from scientific community. During their education students not only accept the knowledge and skills but also the attitudes and behavior patterns from their mentors and teachers. Integrity in science is also strongly influenced by cultural environment. It is important to emphasize that scientists should be leaders in promoting integrity in the whole community, especially because their work and trust strongly depend on it.
 
Responsible conduct of research
Responsible conduct of research implies thinking and planning of research and answering the three major questions considering research. Every scientist should be able to ask himself these questions and answer them with honesty. Only affirmative answers give proper background for a valid investigation. The first question is: “Is it true?” It covers competence of scientists to perform the investigation, usage of proper scientific methodology and honesty in measurement, data collecting, processing and reporting. The second question is: “Is it right?” and implies the highest bioethical standards in the procedures with human patients and experimental animals as well as fair relationship between coworkers, coauthors, institutions, during peer reviewing, between mentors and students, etc. And at the end, the third question: “Is it wise?” requests answers considering priorities of institutions and community, and financial, ecologic and social responsibility.
The three most severe forms of scientific misconduct are fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism (7). Beside these, there are a variety of scientific misconduct that have to be recognized and avoid by scientists, such as divided and repetitive publications, conflict of interest, conflict of loyalty, “pathologic” science and issues on authorship (6).
 
Fabrication and falsification of results
Fabrication of results is not as rare as it may be perceived considering its absurdity in science. If scientific investigation is poorly planned and performed, it is likely inadequate in the number of subjects or in data, which is usually disclosed at the end of investigation. Sometimes authors tend to multiply the number of study subjects two or three times to make the study group or control group larger and “sufficient”. Sometimes, due to the lack of time or resources, some of the experiments, especially the part including control group, are simply not performed; then some normal or expected but fabricated data are written down, continuing the investigation. Such acts are severe scientific misconduct. There is no excuse, there is absolutely no circumstance or justified reason for data fabrication in science.
Falsification of the results or data is usually done when there some strange and unexpected data are obtained. On data processing and statistical procedures that yield nonsignificant results, authors are tempted to correct or delete some values in order to obtain expected results. This is not acceptable. Changing the values obtained will make the scientific work invalid and worthless. Such authors often forget that they have changed and manipulated some data, and according to their wishful thinking they will draw a conclusion they will eventually believe themselves, although it is fake and delusion that leads to a dead end of science instead of knowledge and prosperity.
 
Plagiarism
While fabrication and falsification of results are more tightly linked to the research itself, plagiarism as one of the most dishonest forms of scientific misconduct can be committed in any phase of scientific work and at any level of education (6,12,13).
The definition of plagiarism is still a controversial and highly debated topic; however, the consensus opinion today is that plagiarism is unauthorized appropriation of another’s work, ideas, methods, results or words without acknowledging the source and original author (7). Plagiarism is essentially a theft and goes against the basic principles of science. Results and reports that contain plagiarized – stolen – data, ideas or words are useless, misleading, and do not contribute to science, but at the same time they bring undeserved benefit to the perpetrator. Although unethical, dishonest and prohibited, plagiarism is doubtlessly present in the scientific and academic circles (6,14,15). The confirmed cases of plagiarism dating 200 years back show that it has, unfortunately, always been present in science reporting (16). In addition to plagiarism, self-plagiarism – plagiarizing one’s own words, ideas, or results and presenting them as original work – is an as dishonest act (17,18).
When writing a scientific paper and reporting results from a study, the scientist should be aware that the whole investigation has to be described in one scientific paper. Divided and multiple publication of the same investigation is misleading to the scientific community by presenting one investigation as two or more reports, often tending to publish more papers and gain benefit from more numerous publications. An even more unethical act is double publication, i.e. submitting the same or similar papers describing the same investigation to two or more scientific journals. Such redundant publications deceive scientific community presenting results from one study as the results from multiple studies. This practice is especially dangerous if these results are included in a systematic review or meta-analysis in the evidence based medicine system, thus yielding a greater number of subjects and trials that can influence final evidence based guidelines. Authors of such papers that manage to deceive editors and peer reviewers and publish redundant or repetitive papers are exposed to judgment of wider scientific community and then, if disclosed, their papers are usually retracted, casting permanent shadow on their careers (19).
 
Conflict of interest and loyalty, and “Pathologic” science
Conflict of interest is a raising problem in science, especially in competitive investigations supported by pharmaceutical industry. Irrespective of the source of financing, investigators should be independent in their investigations and perform their experiments unbiased. Investigators are the owners of results and they are the only ones responsible for them.
When publishing scientific papers, journals ask a statement from the authors on their possible conflict of interest and data on financing sources. It is authors’ interest to declare the possible conflict of interest and foundlings because hidden information can arise doubt of the conflict of interest, which may make the whole investigation suspect and invalid (20).
Conflict of loyalty can arise when one investigator is involved in different activities in different scientific institutions. Activities in different institutions and scientific collaboration are praiseworthy, but one should be careful not to get in conflict of interest between institutions or competitive investigation groups. In such case, the primary institution should have advantage and other activities should be avoided.
There are several acts that persist at the borderline area of scientific misconduct and usually are made because of ignorance. This refers to biases in concluding, drawing conclusions based on subjective impression, neglecting strict rules of scientific methodology, accepting borderline significant results as a basis to implicate conclusions, and drawing conclusions based on wishful thinking of a hypothesis without evidence from experimental results (6). These acts are usually recognized during peer reviewing and often prevent publication of such papers, thus only entailing a waste of money, time and reputation.
 
Authorship
Authorship is one of the most sensitive issues in scientific work. It is of great importance for scientists, it is the award at the end of hard work but it carries the responsibility for every part of the published paper. There are very few papers that are written by only one author. Usually there are several authors, and authorship criteria and order of authors are often a source of conflict and disappointment among investigators. This is an issue that should be precisely defined at the very beginning, i.e. on planning and designing the study.
The authorship criteria are best described in guidelines published by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE); these have been widely accepted in biomedical journals (20). In their document “Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Biomedical Journals: Writing and Editing for Biomedical Publication” they clearly state the authorship criteria and other ethical issues to be considered on preparation and publishing of a scientific paper.
There are three basic criteria for authorship:
1) substantial contribution to the concept and design, or to acquisition of data, or to analysis and interpretation of data;
2) drafting the paper or revising it critically for important intellectual contents; and
3) final approval of the version to be published.
Investigators should meet all the three criteria to qualify for authorship. All persons designated as authors should qualify for authorship, and all those who qualify should be listed (20). Some journals now request and publish information on the contribution of each person named as having participated in the respective study. The order of authorship on the byline should be a joint decision of all coauthors. Authors should be prepared to explain the order in which the authors are listed. It is common that the first author is principal investigator and the last one is the guarantor of the study – usually head of the investigation team or laboratory (but only if fulfilling all the three authorship criteria!). All contributors who do not meet the criteria for authorship should be listed in the acknowledgment section. Those are persons who provided purely technical help, writing assistance, or department head who provided only general support, and people or institutions that provided financial or material support. These criteria do not qualify them as authors.
Fake and false authors appear in different context. Guest authors usually fulfill one of the authorship criteria, but not all three of them. Gift authors are persons that are listed as authors as a gift. They do not fulfill the criteria but are listed for interest, gratitude or some favor. Planted authors do not meet the criteria and they often do not even know that they have been listed as authors. The main reason for this is the other authors’ wish to make the paper more important by listing respectable scientists as authors. Ghost authors are persons who meet all the three criteria for authorship but are not listed as authors. Erased or omitted authors suffer damage and will hardly forget the injustice. Such act does not have any reasonable excuse and causes permanent damage to the relationships in the scientific team (6).
The authorship issue is hard to judge outside the scientific group and that is why no committee for ethics in science has discussed the matters of authorship. It is very hard to prove facts in such cases and it always depends on the complicated relationship among the investigation team members. Authorship issues are the responsibility of investigator groups. The history is abundant in cases of authorship misconduct with permanent consequences. One of the obvious examples happened during the 1930s.
In the year 1930, A. A. Berg, a surgeon, operated on 14 patients with symptoms of Crohnic inflammation of the ileum which had not yet been described in the literature. L. Ginzburg and G. Oppenheimer studied 12 of these patients and wrote a paper intended for publication. At the same time, B. Crohn had two patients that presented a similar disease. Crohn suggested to Berg that his two cases might be described and the paper published. Berg pointed out that Ginzburg and Oppenheimer had already prepared a manuscript. After a while, it was discovered that Crohn had planned to report all 14 patients at the meeting of the American Medical Association, claiming his sole authorship. Berg intervened and the names of Ginzburg and Oppenheimer were added to Crohn’s as coauthors, while Berg himself declined the offer of coauthorship. The paper was published in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) in 1932, the injustice stayed, and the condition is even now known as Crohn’s disease (21).
 
Conclusion
Science integrity is the very basis of the existence of science. The ethics of science is hard to describe and summarize. Everything in science should be done honestly and objectively. Scientists should suppress their vanity and self-importance, and be straight in concluding, fair to colleagues; diligent and accurate in data collecting and writing; should not misappropriate the work of the others, even if it may seem unimportant. Even the smallest shadow of scientific misconduct will devaluate scientific work and lead to the loss of respect. Even the smallest achievement in science is great and important in the magnificent kaleidoscope of human science only if it is fair and honest. Every scientist should be aware of this, and should work in science – one of the greatest achievements of mankind – wholeheartedly and open mind.
 
References
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