A recent post over at Adventures in Ethics and Science challenges "senior" scientists by asking "Hey you! Yes, YOU! What have you done to improve the snakepit?".
I'm not exactly a "senior" scientist but when did a little quibble like that stop me from offering an opinion?
Let's take Dr. Free-Ride's questions one at a time, shall we?
In your field, is it the case that senior people never take advantage of junior people -- never sink their grant proposals to protect their own scientific turf
This is a common suspicion and I've had a recent case myself where I thought I was being hosed on a proposal by people that had a horse in the race. As a member of a study section however, this is absolutely impossible to prove. Impossible even to come to a satisfactory gut-level confidence, in my view. The evaluation of grants is so tight, hinges on arbitrary factors and reflects an opaque weighting of factors to the point that it would take essentially a confession on the part of a reviewer to have such a case arise.
never steal their results or ideas, never cut them out of credit
Stealing results is one thing. And no, to answer the good Dr. Free-Ride, I've not yet come across first-person evidence of results stealing. What I have come across, however, is a tension between postdocs and PIs with respect to who "owns" data generated by the trainee while supported by the PIs grants. When in comes right down to it, the grant "owns" the data which means the PI owns at least partial right to it. The cases that I've seen in this respect do not feature a cutting off of credit. More a dispute over the degree of credit and postdocs wanting to withhold "their" data because of order-of-author disputes and the like. So this, at the worst, gets into an authorship "discussion"...but these reasonably run of the mill disagreements do not seem to me to be part of the ethics discussion at hand.
The notion of stealing "ideas" is even trickier. What is an "idea" of sufficient status to represent intellectual property? Just throwing out a half-arsed comment in lab meeting does not get one permanent claim rights. Talk of "claim jumping" in the recent paleontological dustup does not encourage me. Perhaps traditions are different in that field. In biomedical science you don't get to "stake out" territory. You collect the data and publish it, then you "own" the idea.
Or, do you hear the occasional complaint within your field about senior people who take advantage of junior people, or who fudge their data, or who engage in other practices that you think it would be better not to engage in?
What do you do when you hear these complaints? I'm not just asking what kind of advice you give to others who might be making these complaints -- I'm asking what do you do?
Nothing. Nor should anyone. Because a culture that foments unsubstantiated rumoring is an unethical one. There is plenty of loose talk about "I don't trust that lab's data" or "I hear nobody can replicate that" around the water cooler. I object to this. My response when this is directed to me is "Why?", "How do you know?" and "Why don't you publish the proof that they are wrong and then we'll talk". This is not because I am naive. This is because rumor-mongering is so much more likely to be fraught with bias and personal vendetta than it is to be backed by hard data. The only ethical solution I see is to assume innocence until there is some actual hard evidence of malfeasance. And in science the currency of evidence is a handful of data to back your opinion. Absent that, pipe down.
Do you have first-hand knowledge of people in your field working outside of "best practices" (even if what you're seeing probably falls short of official definitions of scientific misconduct)? How do you respond to what you see, and why do you respond the way you do?
Yes and no. In the paper review process, I certainly supply my opinion as to what "best practices" are with respect to "have the data supported the conclusions drawn". There are whole traditions that I don't trust in the sense that I don't agree with some of the basic assumptions about what is important and how to go about the experiment. This is not an ethical concern however, this is the process. Ditto people who embrace a standard of experimental rigor that is lesser than my own. Is this ethics? I think not. Other than this, no, I do not have first-hand knowledge of the kind of bad behavior I think the original post is attempting to address.
There are a few more challenges but it boils down to the same issues. And I have a lack of direct personal experience with clearly definable unethical behavior. I suspect the vast majority of scientist also lack definitive first-person knowledge of research misconduct. And so Dr. Free-Ride's essential question is moot. I can point to few direct actions I've taken because I've never been in the state of first-person certainty of bad behavior that she envisions.
I think it is very likely that the salience of unethical scientific conduct means that we vastly overestimate the actual prevalence. (Or perhaps that the drug-abuse fields are insufficiently "hot" as to drive a lot of research misconduct and this is just a reflection of my particular subfield.) Therefore it may be the case that it is actually expected value that most "senior" scientists will respond to this challenge with a shrug due to lack of direct knowledge, not because they are part of a coverup or are enablers. As Dr. Free-Ride seems to be suggesting!
After what might be considered a defense, I will leave with one place that I do agree with Dr. Free-Ride. It is my perception that the actual "senior" scientists in positions to have some effect, have their heads in the sand with respect to misconduct. I'm talking not the lack of direct personal experience that I'm detailing, but more a denial that this could really be a problem. And there I disagree. Research misconduct does exist (even if prevalence is uncertain) and its effects are pernicious. It is an issue that deserves serious attention and novel solutions.
Update: Uncertain Principles has a response to Dr. Free-Ride up. So does Good Math, Bad Math.