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Responsible Science: Ensuring the Integrity of the Research Process, vol. 1.

In recent years there have been several well-publicized cases of fraud in the conduct of scientific research. One consequence of these reports has been greater interest by the federal government in this problem, especially when federal funding is involved. The government is even beginning to play a role in the investigation and adjudication of fraud allegations. This increased government involvement is not entirely welcome by scientists and private research institutions, who traditionally have felt that policing science is exclusively their own business.

The above-mentioned state of affairs prompted the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and its Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy to form a 22-member panel on Scientific Responsibility and the Conduct of Research to look into the matter and make recommendations. Most of the panelists were scientists holding important faculty or administrative positions at major universities or research institutes, although there was one postdoctoral fellow. In addition, there were two lawyers, a philosopher, a historian, and a philosopher of science. The one name many parapsychologists are likely to recognize is Philip Abelson. He was the former editor of Science who, many believe, was instrumental in keeping papers favorable to parapsychology out of that magazine for a number of years. He is now a deputy editor of Science.

The panel was to address three issues: (a) "the state of current knowledge about modern research practices ... including |those~ that could affect the integrity of research"; (b) "the advantages and disadvantages of enhanced educational efforts and explicit guidelines for researchers and research institutions"; and (c) the "roles |that~ are appropriate for public and private institutions in promoting responsible research practices".

The book begins with a short letter by Frank Press, President of the NAS. Parapsychologists will see some irony in this choice because of Press's own ethically questionable conduct in attempting to suppress Robert Rosenthal's favorable evaluation of ESP-ganzfeld research in conjunction with the National Research Council's report on parapsychology.

The book is organized around explicit definitions of three distinct classes of scientific malfeasance. The most serious, labeled "scientific misconduct," is restricted to cases of "fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reporting research". Plagiarism is taken to include any misrepresentation of another's ideas as one's own and is not restricted to verbatim quotes. The panel argues forcefully that other sins such as errors in judgment or errors in data analysis should not be included under this heading.

These less serious transgressions are placed in a second category called "questionable research practices." They include failing to keep research data and records, granting authorship to persons not making significant contributions to the research or report (including lab directors), denying peers access to data, using improper statistics, inadequately supervising or exploiting subordinates, misrepresenting speculations as facts, and prematurely disclosing results to the media.

On a couple of such matters, the panel came across as equivocal in their discussion. The best example is data selection. On p. 46, they assert that a certain "source of bias" defined as a researcher's "observations |coming~ closer to theoretical expectations than what might be statistically proper ... may be acceptable when it is influenced by scientific insight and judgment." This surprisingly liberal pronouncement is qualified on the next page (but under a different heading) when the panel cautions that "applying scientific judgment to refine data and to remove spurious results places special responsibility on the researcher to avoid misrepresentation of findings. Responsible practice requires that scientists disclose the basis for omitting or modifying data in their analysis of research results". I suppose all this means that data selection is okay if it is guided by "scientific judgment" and the author is up front about it. The panel also seems equivocal about whether one must share one's data with "any critic or competitor," a topic that "could benefit from further research and systematic discussion".

The third category, labeled "other misconduct," refers to transgressions that are not unique to science. They include such things as sexual harassment, misuse of funds, and "tampering with research experiments or instrumentation". The latter is obviously relevant to Randi's Project Alpha. The panel maintains that these types of misconduct should be handled the same way as they are in society at large.

The panel gives considerable attention to what role the government should play in investigating and adjudicating allegations of scientific misconduct. Although they consider any formal definition of the government's role vis-a-vis that of private research institutions to be premature, they nonetheless propose certain guidelines for this relationship. To begin with, they would like all government agencies to adopt their proposed definitions and classification scheme of transgressions. They particularly condemn as dangerously vague the phrase "other serious distortions from accepted research practice," which appears in the definition of scientific misconduct embraced by the Public Health Service (PHS) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). The panel insists that government involvement should be limited to cases of scientific misconduct as the panel defines it and should exclude what they call questionable research practices. They also object strenuously to a program called "PHS ALERT" that publicly discloses the identity of scientists under investigation for misconduct before any formal charges have been filed against them.

The panel believes that the government's role in investigating and adjudicating scientific misconduct cases should be restricted to those cases in which the accused scientist's own institution is not equipped to handle the matter itself or has proven unwilling to do so adequately. They express concern that too much government intervention, particularly in the area of questionable research practices, would discourage innovation and creativity, an observation that parapsychologists should welcome. The panel also notes that the government would probably require less evidence for a guilty verdict than private research institutions would.

Clearly, the panel believes that most of the responsibility for ensuring and assessing scientific integrity should remain with individual scientists and their institutions, but that, to prevent further government encroachment, they must take the problem more seriously than they have in the past. The panel concludes that institutions must not only develop explicit and objective investigative and adjudicatory procedures, but they should also make conscious efforts to create an environment conducive to honest research. This includes instilling proper values in the research staff, even to the point of requiring ethics courses. The panel notes that publish-or-perish pressures, and in particular the pressure to obtain positive results in order to maintain research funding, are factors that contribute negatively to the desired environment. Channels for launching complaints should be publicized within the institution, and those making complaints (whistle-blowers) should be protected.

The panel thinks that formal institutional guidelines for research practices (as distinct from investigative procedures) should be "optional" and that they are most likely to be effective at a subinstitutional or departmental level, where knowledge about the particular problems and procedures in a given research area can best be brought to bear. They note that the preparation of such guidelines can be a complex task that takes time away from scientists' research activities.

Finally the panel proposes the creation of a nongovernmental agency called the "Scientific Integrity Advisory Board (SIAB)." Made up of practicing scientists, research administrators, and others with expertise or experience in the area of scientific misconduct, the SIAB would have as its purpose to exercise leadership in addressing these problems, to form model policies and procedures as well as evaluate current ones, and to serve as an informational clearing house.

How pervasive is scientific misconduct? The panel concludes that there are too few good data to provide a reliable answer to this question. They do cite several reports, however, including a 1990 survey by NSF that lists 47 alleged transgressions, in only 7 of which was guilt established. Also, not all of the 47 cases met the panel's restrictive definition of scientific misconduct. Other surveys suggested that scientific misconduct was most prevalent among senior scientists and scientists from institutions receiving large amounts of government money.

Two members of the panel filed a short minority report. They complained that the need for intellectual freedom was underemphasized by the majority, that the "other misconduct" category was too vague, that there was too little emphasis on institutional pathways for dealing with alleged misconduct, and that the criticism of PHS ALERT was too weak. In my judgment, the panel dealt adequately and forthrightly with all these issues. The only minority criticism I agree with is that more attention could have been paid to the conflict-of-interest problem.

What does this report mean for parapsychology? The panel's recommendations coincide closely with what already exists in the Ethical Guidelines of the Parapsychological Association and common practice in our field. I cannot find any of them that parapsychologists would be likely to take issue with or have difficulty implementing. It is unlikely that any of our laboratories would face government intrusion in a case of alleged misconduct unless the laboratory was receiving federal funding, which, as we know all too well, is very rare. Nevertheless, it would be useful for all our research centers to follow the panel's advice and develop formal procedures for dealing with such cases should they, God forbid, ever arise again in parapsychology.

All parapsychologists should read this book if for no other reason than to see what is happening in established science regarding scientific misconduct. Those who do not have time to read the whole book will find the 16-page "Executive Summary" a very thorough compilation of the main points and specific recommendations.

JOHN PALMER Institute of Parapsychology Box 6847, College Station Durham, NC 27708
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Author:Palmer, John
Publication:The Journal of Parapsychology
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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