For high-octane gall in proclaiming its ethical purity, the scientific community has long been the runaway winner on the institutional landscape.
Miscreants in our ranks are rare, it insists, but when the integrity of science is betrayed, defrocking of the culprits is assured by sensitive internal checks. The reality is that few scientific scoundrels are caught. But when they are, they frequently turn out to have been running wild for years, publishing faked data in respectable journals, with no questions asked. Detection in most cases is usually accidental, and not through a system of scientific quality control. It can be assumed that not all get caught.But most important, the scientific community shows little stomach for confronting its ethical dilemma - as is illustrated by a recently disclosed odoriferous episode that went on for years at the University of California School of Medicine at San Diego, a preeminent institution for biomedical research.
Following a 16-month-long investigation, the school disclosed that a former researcher on its staff, Dr. Robert Slutsky, may well have set a record for mass production and publication of hoked-up scientific papers before he was tripped up and resigned in 1985. Dr. Slutsky, a 37-year-old heart researcher, produced in a mere six years a colossal total of 147 papers, hitting the astonishing pace of one every 10 days in 1983-85. Of 137 that were published,investigators deemed 55 to be "questionable" - a polite term for lack of supporting data, and 13 were found to be plainly "fraudulent," meaning they included identifiable "fabrications." The university states that Mr. Slutsky "falsified and misused data, and reported patient and animal studies which apparently were never made."
Nonetheless, Mr. Slutsky's papers were published in over 30 professional journals, including some of the world leaders in heart research. His fakery wasn't caught by his superiors in the laboratory or in the pre-publicatio n ''expert" reviews of manuscripts that are supposed to serve as a quality check. He obviously passed muster with the editors, who serve as another line of defense. And after the papers were in print, they went unchallenged as authentic contributions to scientific knowledge.
After running his marathon of fraud, Mr. Slutsky got caught when he was up for a new departmental appointment and a member of the screening committee became suspicious of faulty statistics in his papers.
Why did detection take so long? One reason is that Mr. Slutsky, who was seen as a fast-rising star in cardiac research, easily exploited the tawdry academic game of listing co-authors on his papers - 93 separate co-authors, in all - to lend credibility to his work. In academe's publish-or-perish milieu, this "gift" credit was not shunned, the investigating committee stated, noting that:
"Some colleagues and trainees were either flattered or embarrassed to have their names put on papers to which they had not contributed, and many lacked the authority or will power to resist this practice. On the other hand," the committee report continued, "some faculty expected that their names (would) be used even though they had provided only facilities for a project, without substantive contribution to, or even knowledge of, the validity of the work."
Given that two or three papers a year ordinarily represent a respectable scientific output, wasn't Mr. Slutsky's papermill suspicious in itself? It should have been, said the committee, but "the mechanisms to recognize and restrain an overproductive individual were either ineffec tive or not utilized."
The culprit is gone from the San Diego medical school, and tighter rules have been instituted there to prevent a repetition. But, overall, the scientific community remains reluctant to confront the ugly underside of career success in contemporary science.
For the past two years, two researchers at the National Institutes of Health, Walter Stewart and Ned Feder, have unsuccessfully sought to publish a critical examination of the quality and accuracy of a batch of papers drawn
from major scientific journals.
Editors have praised their study as worthy of publication; two Congressional committees have held hearings sympathetic to their efforts. But their paper remains unpublished, under a barrage of libel threats from attorneys for the scientists whose work they reviewed.
Is the house of science clean and in order? The bit of evidence that reaches the public invites serious doubts.