What do freedom and responsibility mean today, and why do they matter to the scientific community? With expert guests, this ISC podcast series, in partnership with Nature, will explore critical topics such as building trust in science, using emerging technologies responsibly, combatting mis- and dis-information, and the intersections between science and politics.
How can we combat malpractice and misconduct in research? And how do we promote trust in scientists and the work they do? In this sixth and final episode, Professor Elisabeth Bik (Microbiologist and Scientific Integrity Consultant) and Doctor Soumya Swaminathan (Clinical Scientist and Chairperson of the Swaminathan Research Foundation and former chief scientist at the World Health Organization) explore the impact of scientific misconduct on public trust in science, and the responsibility of scientists and institutions in promoting trustworthiness, including the importance of science education and effective communication.
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“Trust is something that is built over a long period of time, it’s a two way process that involves investment of time, resources, and people. And it’s important to build on that and develop these communities.”
“We can easily create photos of cells or tissues that look very realistic and they’re unique. And that technology can be used to create all kinds of fake news and fake science. It’s damaging for the whole society.”
Hello and welcome to this podcast series from the International Science Council, on freedom and responsibility in science.
I’m Marnie Chesterton, and in this final episode, we’re looking at trust. How can we combat malpractice and misconduct in research? And how do we promote trust in scientists and the work they do?
So many of the important decisions we make in society are based on scientific evidence – from how we treat diseases or educate our children, to the interventions we make to protect the planet.
It’s vital that science is credible and reliable. And yet, despite the advances we have made this century, scientific fraud is on the rise.
There’s obviously several kinds of misconduct you could see in a paper. But the most visible ones are photos. Images, photos of plants, or mice, or cells or tissues or protein gels, blots, things like that.
This is Elisabeth Bik. A microbiologist by training, she now specialises in the detection of fake images in scientific papers.
You can sometimes see traces of things like photoshopping, or using the same image twice to represent two different experiments.
You might see statistical errors, you might see impossible numbers or, or numbers that look very similar, either between tables or across papers suggesting that the data has been made up. And and then there’s the misconduct, you cannot see just because the person is smart, and is hiding it. And you can only catch it when you’re sitting next to the person doing the misconduct if they use a different antibody or a different cell line. Or if they just dilute their samples a little bit, you can make your results look exactly the way you want it without doing that experiment.
Catching scientific misconduct isn’t always possible. But Elisabeth has tried to get a sense of the scale of the problem when it comes to images.
I scanned 20,000 papers, and I found that 4% of those, 800 papers, had signs of image duplications. And we estimated about half of those had been done deliberately. So that would mean that 2% of the papers that I scanned had signs of misconduct. I think the real percentage of misconduct has to be higher than 2%. It has to be in the maybe the four or 10% range. And I do think it’s getting worse.
You see that there are paper mills and those are companies that make fake papers and sell the authorship positions to those authors, who need those papers, So journals, luckily, are getting more aware of this problem, and are screening their incoming manuMarnie Chestertons better to catch these fake papers.
Publication fraud like this is damaging in all kinds of ways, and in the long run, ends up hurting all of us.
For example, with these paper mills that we have discovered, it’s damaging the people who are honest, scientists are doing really good science. But it’s also damaging for science, because we already have seen in the past couple of years, during the COVID pandemic, that there is a group of people who now have a huge distrust in science. And I think the stories about misconduct in science could actually help those people be more convinced that science is, is all fake, and we cannot trust scientists anymore.
So what can we do about this growing problem? Well, according to Elisabeth, it’s going to take action on multiple fronts.
It takes a village, it takes not just the scientists themselves, but the institutions that they work at, the scientific publishers, the readers, and maybe even a government to make sure that science is done properly.
So the papers that I found, I reported all of those to the publishers. And I found that only one-third of those papers were corrected after waiting five years.
I would love to see that there were some consequences for people who are caught for photoshopping science, I feel that that paper should be retracted. And those people after an investigation should be punished, maybe lose their job.
And I think we need to move towards a reproducibility model of scientific publishing. We tend to focus too much on novel science, which is great. But I think we’re moving too fast, we need to take a step back to more, reproduce more experiments, and then give the people who are able to reproduce experiments recognition for that.
Researchers, institutions and governments all have roles to play in ensuring that science is done responsibly. But trustworthiness isn’t the same as trust.
The COVID-19 pandemic showed that not everyone was willing to put their faith in experts, and we saw the life-threatening consequences of inaccurate information.
So whose responsibility is it to build public trust in science?
I would start with school teachers, and parents, who need to inculcate in children, the spirit of scientific inquiry, inquisitiveness, curiosity, the need to question and to as they grow, to be able to distinguish between credible sources of information and, and what could be perhaps false information.
This is Soumya Swaminathan, former Chief Scientist at the World Health Organization, and currently the chairperson of the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai, South India.
But of course, I think scientists also have a responsibility. And I think fundamental understanding of science is that it evolves constantly, that it’s a community, really, not individuals that ultimately come up with solutions to problems. Sometimes there is proof that actually overturns what was believed earlier.
I think we also have as scientists, and as well as, as public health experts, a duty to communicate what we understand. In language, that’s simple. That’s easy to understand, that’s not talking down to people, but engaging them in a conversation, treating them as equals, and trying to address the myths and misconceptions that we might find around us.
But unfortunately, we’ve all seen how these days, communicating research findings or debunking myths online comes with its own challenges…
There’s a lot of online abuse and hate and I think, particularly for women, sometimes, you know, this can be very ugly, as well, and it can get very personal.
In social media, in particular, there needs to be norms of behaviour, on what you can and cannot say, on social media, and what kind of language you know, you can and cannot use. And I would like to see these rules being put in place and enforced. That’s the only way to have a constructive and open debate.
Because a lot of people were thrust into social media at the time of the pandemic, when they were desperate for knowledge. And there was a lot of, lot of confusing information out there and what we call the “infodemic”. So I think that there’s a lot of education to be done, really, in, in all of these areas. Before we can get much more enlightened, and maybe civil discourse going on some of these topics.
The COVID pandemic put public trust in science to the ultimate test. So what lessons can we learn? And, looking to the future, are there reasons to be hopeful?
What I find very encouraging is that in the surveys that have happened in the last couple of years, if you ask people whom they trust, their trust in scientists and their trust in the medical profession seems to be quite high.
After all, it was science that delivered for us during the pandemic, it was thanks to investment in science and research that we had so many vaccines developed, and a whole lot of understanding of how this virus spreads.
And again, studies have shown that, in countries where there’s high trust between people and between government and people, their outcomes were generally much better, that people were much more willing to comply with government instructions than in places where there was less trust.
I would say, however, that trust is not something that can be built overnight. And one has to get into communities, one has to engage with them, one has to, they have to be participants in the process. Top down measures usually are not a way to build trust. So it’s going to be very important, I think, to build that trust.
That’s it for this final episode on freedom and responsibility in science from the International Science Council.
The ISC has released a discussion paper on these issues, titled A contemporary perspective on the free and responsible practice of science in the 21st century.
And, in July 2023, the ISC will produce another paper, through its newly established Centre for Science Futures, on public engagement and trust in science. Insights from the paper will provide a robust framework to interpret, mediate and explain scientific knowledge, and provide advice, recommendations and policy options.
Visit futures.council.science for more information.
The information, opinions and recommendations presented by our guests are those of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the values and beliefs of the International Science Council.
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