Ann Nichols-Casebolt, professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University, is author of the book “Research Integrity and Responsible Conduct of Research” that focusses on social sciences. Nichols-Casebolt spoke on ‘Scientific Integrity’ at the conference ‘Science and Integrity in the Modern University’ organized by Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.
Scientific integrity is a hotly debated topic in the Netherlands since the famous social scientist Diederik Stapel admitted he fabricated major parts of his research and other incidents became public knowledge as well. As a result the public’s esteem of scientists dropped. Ann Nichols Casebolt: “The general public does not see and can therefore not fully appreciate the complexity of a new discovery. People think: “why does it take so long to find a cure for cancer?!””
Appreciate slow but good research
“The current system sets up a mechanism that stimulates irresponsible research”, Nichols-Casebolt says. “Scientists have to do a lot of research and have to publish very fast and very often and those are not the circumstances that stimulate research of high quality.”
“There are a lot of mechanisms in place to stop scientific fraud”, Nichols-Casebolt explains. “We have a code of conduct on research integrity that states that if someone frauds we have to report that, but that is not enough to create a culture of responsible research. There is a lot of pressure on scientists to publish their results quickly, this makes many researchers think, “I have to publish this now, before someone scoops me”.”
It is not possible to completely prevent research misconduct. Not all people in R&D are saints. People who do their research irresponsibly often start by making one little short-cut. That might lead to more misconduct later on, it is a slippery slope. “We should recognize and be thoughtful about the pressure we put on people. People expected Diederik Stapel to publish multiple researches with spectacular results every year. Good and therefore slow research should be appreciated more, researchers should not want to score too fast and too often.”
Embody scientific integrity
“The US has a different approach towards scientific misconduct from Europe. In the US we do not ignore research misconduct, but we focus on educating scientists in respectable research. The best way to stop scientific misconduct and to prevent it in the future is to emphasize it more in academic education. In order to become a good researcher you have to embody scientific integrity.”
“We target junior scientists and we offer them credit-courses in ‘scientific integrity’ that they have to follow in their first year. In these courses we talk a lot about misconduct, but much more about best practices. The Technical University Delft has the same focus in their code of ethics. It is not about rules, it is more important what you do when the rules do not apply.”
Lab notebooks for social scientists
“At the VCU we have a summer laboratory school for undergrads. In these classes the students are given a notebook in which everything they do in the laboratory has to be registered, the lab book. After this course, students tell us that other people in the laboratory don’t maintain their lab book correctly. As a reaction they perfectly maintain their lab notebooks.”
“In social sciences we make important decisions that influence our research all day long. It is important to remember months or even years later, what you did when the computer crashed that had all the data on it. Social sciences should have these records just like they have them in medical sciences, a lab notebook for social scientists.”
“These notebooks have to be maintained in a universal way. Scientists from all over the world must be able to say: “I would like to see your data”, and understand the data they see.” To make this easier electronic notebooks are needed, but now they are still too susceptible to fraud.
Electronic notebooks need a track changes tool so that notebooks can’t be changed afterwards. These improved digital notebooks could be used in court cases as evidence to find out who did a scientific discovery first and would put the endless lawsuits to an end. It could also repair people’s trust in science. “We need something that people can trust except just the scientists. That will not be easy, but we all have PhD’s, we should be able to figure it out.”