SfN Ethics Committee: The Role of Intent
Editor’s note: Peggy Mason is the chair of the SfN Ethics Committee. This article is the second in an occasional series focusing on issues related to ethical conduct in publishing. In the following article, the author discusses the role of intent in cases of alleged misconduct.
In research, there is a broad range of potential missteps, ranging from acts that are universally considered unethical, to conduct that elicits disapproval from some or a look away by others, to even the occasional endorsement. Data fabrication falls into the first category. It is an act that is inherently unacceptable within the context of scientific research, always and forever wrong regardless of circumstance. On the other hand, opinions regarding who should be an author on a manuscript, or when an experimental resource should be shared, for example, may vary and can be influenced by circumstances.
Correcting Mistakes and Missteps
Many of the complaints handled by SfN’s Ethics Committee do not involve explicitly unethical behavior. For example, one common complaint is that data is re-used without proper citation of the author’s original report on that data. When such duplicate publication is limited in scope, it represents a violation of SfN’s Guidelines for Responsible Conduct Regarding Scientific Communication, but the omission is likely made because the author was unaware of the rules, rather than from intended deception.
Regardless of the motivation behind a violation, the scientific record must be corrected. Forward progress of the scientific mission depends on all of us building on others’ findings to come closer and closer to our ultimate goal of understanding the world in all of its physical and biological intricacy. The literature must therefore be as accurate as possible to prevent wasted efforts based on erroneous data.
It is for this reason that I wrote in my previous column that “intent is immaterial” to our course of action, a view that some have questioned. When it comes to the reliability of the scientific literature, it does not matter whether an error arose from a mistake, breaking rules of which one was unaware, or from malfeasance. Depending on the severity of the violation, manuscripts must be corrected or rejected and articles must be corrected (with a published corrigendum) or retracted. Therefore, the Ethics Committee does not consider the back-story behind misrepresentation of data when considering whether and how to rectify the scientific literature.
A second, perhaps more practical reason for the Committee not to consider intent is our profound uncertainty in determining the motive behind any particular violation. To paraphrase The Shadow, “who knows what intentions lurk in the hearts [brains] of neuroscientists?” Short of a confession, we really don’t know, in any factual sense, who did what and why. The Committee’s approach is to work with complainants, the public record, and with alleged offenders to ascertain, to the best of its ability, the full extent of the problem, and to identify those who bear direct or indirect responsibility. When the violations are extensive or important issues remain unanswered, we may ask the author’s institution to investigate. Ideally, institutional investigations involve examination of raw data and laboratory notebooks, along with interviews of laboratory members, ultimately resulting in a sober and objective report. Unfortunately, the reality is that the quality of institutional investigations varies widely; the poorest investigations may result from the inherent conflict of interest that institutions have when investigating their own. All of these considerations lend strength to the strategy of focusing on errors rather than intent.
Preventing Future Missteps
Beyond protecting the quality and reliability of literature, the Ethics Committee also has an interest in preventing repeated and future research misconduct, with the ultimate goal of putting the committee out of business. It tries to prevent repeat misconduct through sanctions, which preclude involvement in SfN activities for a period of time (see the Summer 2013 NQ article, New Committee Addresses Rise in Ethics Complaints for information about sanctions).
A person who conducts intentional research fraud must, of course, be held responsible. However, intent is not the only factor that is considered. The committee also holds individuals responsible if they have acted recklessly, for example, through negligent oversight or numerous careless errors. This approach derives from the NIH Office of Research Integrity definition of research misconduct as “fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results,” and the requirement that these acts must be committed “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly.” The committee does its best to identify those that are responsible but, in acknowledgement of its inability to know all the facts of a case, sanctions are not imposed with the intention of being scientific death sentences. Consequently, the identities of individuals sanctioned by SfN are not made part of the public record. The goal of sanctions is to emphasize the seriousness with which responsible research must be conducted, and to educate presumably well-intentioned colleagues about how to avoid future missteps and mistakes.
Committee’s Work Going Forward
I want to close on a personal note, first by thanking the SfN members who have taken the time to contact the Ethics Committee (firstname.lastname@example.org) with suggestions, comments and questions. Your input pushes us to be as responsive and useful as we can be to the neuroscience community, and I hope that you will continue to send in your thoughts and concerns.
There are numerous points at which scientists can err in the design, performance, analysis, interpretation, and reporting of experiments. My service as chair has led me to observe that many of the errors that scientists make are not ethical in nature, but instead concern best scientific practices – proper experimental design, statistical power, controls, statistical analysis, reporting, citation and the like. Moreover, I firmly believe that vanishingly few scientists wake up in the morning with the intent of acting irresponsibly or unethically. Therefore, discussions of personal motives, culpability, and blame are unlikely to be of benefit to anyone. Instead, the forward progress of our scientific mission will be optimally served by open discussions that focus on best scientific practices.