Tale ved forskningsetisk konferanse

Det Norske Videnskaps-Akademi

Ladies and gentlemen.

Welcome to this conference on integrity and ethics in research. It was fully booked quite quickly. I interpret that as a sign that this is a topic that matters to the scientific community. And that’s good – because we need your input when we revise the Act on ethics and integrity in research.

When incidents of malpractice in research reach the mainstream media, it tends to be the most spectacular cases: Here in Norway, we’ve had the case of Jon Sudbø, who fabricated data on 454 cancer patients in an article in Lancet. In Japan, the young star Haruko Obokata, who claimed to have triggered stem cell abilities in regular body cells, turned out to be a fraud. And in Germany, two government ministers have had to resign after it was revealed that they had plagiarised parts of their doctoral theses.

These are just three examples. But we all know that incidents of sheer fabrication of data are rare. The risk of getting caught is too high – the possible consequences too severe.

No, it’s the research that takes place in an ethical grey area that is the biggest challenge. Let me list some examples:

  1. The young researcher, driven by what I have seen described as the the academic imperative to “publish or perish,” who presents the data in a way that makes it fit the hypothesis. He has to make his way in a competitive field and can’t afford having spent perhaps a year on research that doesn’t get published.
  2. The use of co-authors who actually don't contribute to the research. I don’t know if you read PhD Comics, but I read one strip recently which had a description of the authorship process that, while intended to be funny, rings uncomfortably true: Here’s an excerpt: “The first author: Senior grad student on the project. Made the figures. The second author: Grad student in the lab that has nothing to do with this project, but was included because he hung around the group (usually for the food). The last author. The Head honcho. Hasn’t even read the paper but, hey, he got the funding and his famous name will get the paper accepted.”
  3. The publication of unfinished research that cannot be reproduced. I believe that is a problem of greater magnitude than we like to admit. For instance, a few years ago scientists the American pharmaceutical company Amgen tried to replicate 53 studies that they considered landmarks in cancer research, often cooperating with the original researchers to ensure that their experimental technique matched the one used first time round. According to a piece they wrote last year in Nature, they were able to reproduce the original results in just six.
  4. Peer reviewers that only superficially checks if a paper is methodologically sound, without actually delving into the research or the underlying data. But that is often because they’re not given access to the data. That is why the New York Times suggested in its editorial last Monday: “The scientific community clearly needs to build a better safety net. It can start by ensuring that scientists, especially peer reviewers, are allowed to see the underlying data of a paper, which researchers are typically reluctant to share.”

These are just a few examples of the challenges we face. I could go on – I could for instance mention sloppy referencing, plagiarism, self-plagiarism. But I think we all agree on the description of the situation.

Why is it like this? And why is it that we seem to see an increase in behaviour that crosses ethical boundaries?

The obvious answer is that researchers are under a lot of pressure. There is an increasing international competition. To further your career, you need a high number of citations, and the actual research ends up playing second fiddle to getting published. And there obviously aren’t enough positions and projects to go around for everyone. All of these factors can make it tempting to take a short-cut. And those who assess applications for financing, sit on committees and so forth are under the same sort of pressure.

A psychologist at the University of Virginia summed up the entire predicament pretty well in an article in The Economist a couple of years back. “There is no cost to getting things wrong. The cost is not getting them published.”

To counter this tendency, we intend to revise the Act on ethics and integrity in research. One of the main changes we plan to propose is to establish by law the ethical responsibility of the research institutions.

That means that the law will require them to work actively to prevent misconduct through good practices for data management, peer review, publication and so forth. They naturally have such a responsibility today as well, but there is too much variation in how and how well they handle it.

This legislation is also about raising awareness. It sends a clear signal that the institutions have a responsibility to build a culture where it is not okay to take short-cuts.

You have all received a preliminary consultation paper which reflects where we are now in the process. But the entire point of this conference is getting your feedback, your views. What is the best way forward?

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We have divided this day into two parts. Before lunch, we will get an international perspective on integrity and ethics in research. I am very much looking forward to our distinguished guests from abroad giving their talks on:

  • Scientific research as a moral institution.
  • The role of medical journals in guarding the integrity and ethics of biomedical research
  • Differences in research cultures and systems for handling research misconduct

And in our second session, we will delve more closely into what responsibility the research institutions should have in guiding their researchers and creating a culture where the grey area is shunned.

I thank you all for coming here today and look forward to a fruitful discussion with you.