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Institute Urges Scientists to End Sloppy Research Methods

THE Institute of Medicine - sister to the National Academy of Sciences - has taken a hard look at misconduct in science and concludes there is more to it than outright fraud and data faking. In a report released yesterday in Washington, the institute study committee warns that ``in the long run, the quality of the research environment may be more damaged by sloppy or careless research practices and apathy than by incidents of research fraud.'' Moreover, the report notes, a major factor in the ``small number of publicly reported cases of scientific fraud,'' has been ``an unhealthy research environment that failed to discourage [or even tolerated] sloppy or careless research standards.''

Thus, while the report deals specifically with policies to discourage fraud and other misconduct, it also urges universities and other institutions to tighten up the quality control of American scientific research in general.

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As examples of ``sloppy'' practices, the report cites the following:

Multiple authorship of research papers when some of the authors have little to do with the work.

Failure of senior researchers and team leaders to adequately supervise junior colleagues and the conduct of the investigations.

Inadequate training of senior researchers in supervisory practices.

Withholding data from colleagues and from outside scientists who may want to verify the research findings.

Many studies have identified such practices as major failings in the way research often is conducted today. Now the institute committee is saying the time has come for vigorous action to correct them. It puts the main responsibility for doing this on the individual research organizations, which must maintain high standards in their day-to-day work.

The committee explains this means establishing formal guidelines for professional behavior and formal procedures for dealing with reports of misconduct. It offers a number of recommendations to help in formulating these.

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While some universities have put such safeguards in place, many others have not. There has been a widespread belief that the general tradition of scientific integrity should guard against most misconduct. But a consensus is emerging in Congress, federal funding agencies, and professional bodies that formal safeguards are needed.

Last month, for example, the Association of American Universities (AAU) issued model guidelines on handling research misconduct. The AAU represents most (54) of the big American research universities. Its president, Robert Rosenzweig, noted that, while some two-thirds of its members have guidelines, ``a number of institutions need help.''

Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which funds most American biomedical research, is finishing its own set of guidelines. These would apply to all institutions and researchers receiving, or applying for, NIH funds.

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