Don’t Place Scientists on a Moral Pedestal, They’re People Too

Bioethics   |   Rebecca Taylor   |   Dec 20, 2012   |   4:34PM   |   Washington, DC

In our culture, we idolize scientists. Often John Q. Public fails to question what scientists are doing or the money they ask for because there is the assumption that scientists are altruistic. Even more often, anyone who does question the ethics of the research or the public policy that provides money to ethically-suspect research is labeled “anti-science.”

We have no problem believing that CEOs or bankers would commit fraud, but put on a white coat and that becomes a difficult sell. Venerating scientists like they are rock stars, doesn’t help.

And yet fraud in the scientific community is a problem. The Scientist outlines the “Top Science Scandals of 2012.” A fascinating read filled with made-up data and fictional patients. One Japanese scientist fabricated data in 172 papers over his career. A particularly clever fraud perpetrated by scientists, was to refer journal editors back to themselves for reviews of their papers:

Rather than falsify data in order to get published, researchers have taken a new tack this year by writing glowing expert reviews for their own papers. When asked by journal editors to suggest names of experts in their field who were not involved in their research, at least four submitting authors suggested names and emails that then forwarded back to their own inboxes. The trend, first reported by Retraction Watch, was caught by one journal editor when author Hyung-In Moon, assistant professor at Dong-A University in Busan, South Korea, offered up names of reviewers with Google and Yahoo rather than university email accounts.

Are all scientists unethical? Absolutely not. But we cannot continue to treat all scientists with kid gloves. Scientists are people too. They are just as subject to the temptations of ethically-suspect behaviors as bankers and CEOs.



Which is why I have always said scientists are scientists, not philosophers, not ethicists, and certainly not lawmakers. To suggest that we should leave the decision about what is moral scientific research up to the just the scientists is like suggesting we should leave what constitutes ethical business practices up to corporate CEOs.