May 20, 2018 | David F. Coppedge

Scientists Should Go to Church

A plague of research misconduct bothers leading journal editors. How are they going to evolve integrity? By preaching to matter in motion?

Big Science leaders face a serious conundrum. They teach that everything in the universe is due to unguided, impersonal natural causes, but they want scientists to stop behaving badly. Is integrity a matter of particles in motion? In Nature, Gunsalus and Robinson describe “Nine Pitfalls of Research Misconduct.”  The excuses scientists give for being irresponsible sound all too human:

  • Temptation: “Getting my name on this article would look really good on my CV [curriculum vitae, a type of resume].”
  • Rationalization: “It’s only a few data points, and those runs were flawed anyway.”
  • Ambition: “The better the story we can tell, the better a journal we can go for.”
  • Group and authority pressure: “The PI’s instructions don’t exactly match the protocol approved by the ethics review board, but she is the senior researcher.”
  • Entitlement: “I’ve worked so hard on this, and I know this works, and I need to get this publication.”
  • Deception: “I’m sure it would have turned out this way (if I had done it).”
  • Incrementalism: “It’s only a single data point I’m excluding, and just this once.”
  • Embarrassment: “I don’t want to look foolish for not knowing how to do this.”
  • Stupid systems: “It counts more if we divide this manuscript into three submissions instead of just one.”

These authors want scientists and their institutions to take responsibility for these nine deadly sins and shape up. But who will watch the watchers?

Preach that to atheists. Good luck. Maybe send them to a sermon series on the Ten Commandments. Better yet, preach on “You must be born again” (John 3).

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