Do Scientists Need a Professional Code of Ethics?

Written by John O´Sullivan

The general public, as well as scientists are all too aware that there is a rise in the perception of misconduct in science in recent decades.

The ease by which information is exchanged today has allowed for us all to become all too aware that there are more than just a few “isolated instances” of misconduct in science.

As reported in the New York Times (July 10, 2010) corruption of science has not only poisoned perception about climatology. As the NYT says, “Experts say the problem is only getting worse, as research projects, and the journals that publish the findings, soar.” 

South Korean Science Scandal Shocks World

This cancer has long tarnished medical science research. Reporting on the stem cell scandal involving South Korean scientist, Dr. Hwang Woo Suk NYT illustrated how one minute Dr. Hwang’s research made him a national hero then the next he’s the biggest snake oil salesman going. Today Hwang is paying for his crimes languishing in a prison cell. Many more such white-coated crooks are still free to walk the streets.

In case you don’t recall, Hwang and his team outdid rivals by claiming to have extracted stem cells from cloned human embryos and to have cloned a dog, an extraordinary feat. Some observers hailed the breakthroughs as worthy of a Nobel Prize. Such is the temptation of fame and fortune.


“The Korean case shows us that we should be a lot more cautious,” Marcel C. LaFollette, the author of “Stealing Into Print: Fraud, Plagiarism, and Misconduct in Scientific Publishing,” said in an interview. “We have been unwilling to ask tough questions of people who are from other countries and whose systems are different because we were attempting to be polite.”


Frankly, here at PSI we think Marcel is more than just polite he’s naïve. With the fall of in confidence in scientific integrity one question is being repeatedly posed: “Do scientists need a professional code of ethics?”

As Vincent N. Hamner and Dr. H.H. Bauer identified way back in 1992,we first need to define the types of scientific misconduct and provide modern examples of these instances. Science associations around the world then need to examine a set of ‘golden rules of science’: the scientific method or what we at PSI call the ‘English Scientific Method.’

What are the generally accepted norms of science? Many professional scientific societies claim to have adopted professional codes of ethics within the past few decades-but do they implement them?

If you ask Professor Hal Lewis who recently resigned in disgust from the American Physics Society, he’d tell you no!

Professor Lewis began his public letter of resignation from the APS with, “When I first joined the American Physical Society sixty-seven years ago it was much smaller, much gentler, and as yet uncorrupted by the money flood (a threat against which Dwight Eisenhower warned a half-century ago).

Lewis identifies both a start time for the falling of standards and the reasons for that fall. If we believe Lewis and the myriad other prominent high profile media stories, it seems modern science associations appear to have paid only lip service to refining their customs and practice.

What still seems to be occurring is that while most scientists don’t give into pressures to cut corners and work hard to uphold standards, surveys are showing there exists powerful undercurrents of misconduct and outright fakery.

As the NYT article reveals, “In June, a survey of 3,427 scientists by the University of Minnesota and the HealthPartners Research Foundation reported that up to a third of the respondents had engaged in ethically questionable practices, from ignoring contradictory facts to falsifying data.”

Would we turn a blind eye if such misconduct were so endemic in our local law courts and hospitals? I don’t think so.

Current Safety Nets Aren’t Catching the Bad Fish

In 1997 the Committee on Publication Ethics, or COPE was set up to help stem corruption of peer review in science journals. It sought to provide a sounding board for editors who are struggling with how to best deal with possible breaches in research and publication ethics. Today that committee has more than 300 members in Europe, Asia and the United States. But is hasn’t worked.

The growth inscience publishing has seen that there now exist over 54,000 science-related journals published, according to Ulrich’s Periodicals Directory. Shawn Chen, a senior associate editor at Ulrich’s, illustrates the explosion of this medium saying “We’re having a hard time keeping up.” He reports that there were 29,098 such journals in 2005 and only 15,300 in 1980.

In reality, millions of articles are written and never read and may be of highly dubious quality being peer-reviewed amongst a self-serving clique or never reviewed at all.

BMJ Calls for New Science Association to Tackle Professional Fraud

The BMJ lamented for years about the problem of false claims made in such journals.

They argue that one key difficulty is that editors of journals can go only so far in stemming the tide of fraud and they need the aid of national investigative bodies and professional associations that oversee scientific research.  Thus there is the highest level of support for the formation of an organization like PSI.

The journal Science, owned by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, that was first to showcase the bogus stemcell work of Dr. Hwang when criticized for not doing enough in helping expose such fraud declared, “The journal itself is not an investigative body.”

This may be a case in which such individual institutions have an enormous conflict of interest.

Dr. Smith, former editor of The British Medical Journal believes that such bodies, when examining an allegation of fraud on their own are more likely tempted “to slide someone out of the organization or to suppress it altogether.”

In a world of decaying values a stand has to be taken against the cancer of seeping corruption. Principia Scientific International is the world’s first non-profit international science association pledged to address ethical standards in the profession; to act for the good of all the help raise standards.

Note: this article refers extensively to a paper ‘ Do scientists Need a Professional Code of Ethics?’ by Vincent N. Hamner (May 1992).