ethical misconduct

Is sensationalization of scientific findings unethical?

Gary Marcus recently published in The New Yorker entitled “Neuroscience Fiction”.  It presents neuroscience as a science littered with inconsistencies and inaccurate data, referring mainly to PET and fMRI brain imaging studies.  As a neuroscientist I take an exception to this.  I am also surprised that Gary Marcus, an author of several scientific papers and a professor of psychology at NYU, does not have a better grasp on how to critically review scientific papers.  The established peer review process is good, but it simply ensures sound scientific technique and interpretation of the data, not independent reproduction of the findings.  Within any of the vast number of scientific disciplines it is easy to find papers that seemingly contradict each other.  This is not something that is neuroscience specific and if you carefully read the papers, including the methods section (gasp), you can often determine the source of their inconsistencies.  When dealing with emotional responses to an image (regularly done in fMRI studies) you can get vastly different responses from two different subjects in the same study where every methodological detail is identical.  For example, one person may see a dog as a soft adorable cuddly animal while another person that was recently bit by a dog could experience intense fear.  Now, if someone else does a seemingly similar study, but uses different images or in a different order or with different thresholds and parameters, it is not surprising that these two studies could yield very different results.  That isn’t to say that something cannot be learned from comparing the studies and outcomes. 

The problem isn’t with neuroscience or science in general.  Scientists must publish and present their results so they can be scrutinized by other scientists, reproduced in an independent lab, and alternate explanations, interpretations, and theories (or further support) can be established.  Problems arise when the findings are sensationalized through irresponsible reporting and the scientist is either not able to or simply does not accurately portray their research to the general public.  Scientists need to learn to be cautious when disseminating their findings to the general public.  They should be careful to emphasize that their new, cutting edge discovery has the potential to do this or lead to that, but that it doesn’t actually accomplish it yet. There is a breakdown in communication between scientist, reporters and the general public and I see it every day on CNN, The New Yorker, and many other popular new sources. 

Tell us what you think…Is this a problem?  What can be done about it?  Should sensationalized findings be considered scientific/ethical misconduct?

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Scientific Misconduct Beyond the Unethical Scientist

The Scientist recently ran “Parkinson’s Researcher Fabricated Data” regarding the Office of Research Integrity’s finding of scientific misconduct against Mona Thiruchelvam, a former assistant professor at the University of Medicine and Dentistry, New Jersey. Thiruchelvam falsified cell count data reported in two federal grant applications (R01 ES016277 and R01 ES015041) as well as two published papers (Environmental Health Perspectives and Journal of Biological Chemistry). This data was used to inaccurately support the role of pesticides in dopaminergic cell death – the key neurotransmitter implicated in Parkinson’s disease (PD). While Thiruchelvam has agreed to retract the papers as well as enter into a voluntary exclusion agreement for 7 years, the results of these fabricated data have consequences beyond this one scientist’s career.

At a time when grant funding is scarce, Thiruchelvam beguiled both the NIH and the Michael J. Fox Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding a cure for PD, into funding this erroneous research. But, stealing money from other researchers is only the start. The scientific misconduct affects more than just the United States tax payers who ultimately foot the bill for academic research. Combined, both papers have been cited over 100 times. Countless numbers of collaborators, post-docs, and graduate students unknowingly used this fabricated data to support their own research. These are the individuals who have lost the most; the scientists who spent the better part of 7 years dedicating their careers to this line of research. Do you think Thiruchelvam considered the negative impact this would have on their careers? I think this question is as easy to answer as the validity of Thiruchelvam’s data.

Has this research affected your scientific endeavors?

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