Moves are afoot to clamp downon scientific dishonesty. Olga Wojtas reports.
A white mouse and a black felt tip pen ushered in the modern era of scientific fraud. Campaigners now think the problem is so threatening that they want postgraduates to be educated in ethics.
Twenty years ago, William Summerlin, an immunologist in New York, claimed he had successfully grafted black skin on to a white mouse, when he had instead darkened the transplanted skin with a felt tip.
Stephen Lock, a leading campaigner against scientific fraud, and co-editor of Fraud and Misconduct in Medical Research, says in his book that the Summerlin case seems to have heralded a mini epidemic of incidents, which have in turn sparked off measures to combat fraud.
Lock says: "I wouldn't say it's a growth industry. They reckon now in the United States and Canada it affects between 0.25 and 0.1 of all research projects. It's not big, but it's big enough."
The latest move is by the Royal College of Physicians, who this week met to explore setting up a national "fraud squad".
"I would hope a code of practice would develop, and that would involve education," says David London, registrar of the RCP. "There should be formal education in ethics, and I very much like the idea of educating people from the word go."
Povl Riis, professor of internal medicine at Copenhagen University, says: "The most important aim in dealing with scientific dishonesty is not to unmask the transgressors but to use the lessons learnt from the rare and serious cases of scientific fraud to prevent it in future, primarily by teaching good research practice, and its ethical base, during all phases of research education".
A specific code is needed, Professor London believes, because postgraduate education is essentially an apprenticeship system.
"Generally, one learns by example, and one does not always see the example. One needs much more formal education about ensuring that data is correct and handled correctly, because otherwise one's education is haphazard".
As this week's meeting bashes out the principles of the fraud squad, Dr Lock, who is a research associate at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine and former editor of the British Medical Journal, will argue that a central fraud-busting body should be as concerned to proselytise and ensure good practice as to investigate allegations of fraud.
"Postgraduates need to be taught about authorship, about who owns the data, about data retention, such as storing lab books for a number of years so that they can be produced later if necessary".
He is certain that postgraduates commit fraud, as is Frank Wells, medical director of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry. But no one has quantified it.
They commit fraud for several reasons. "Money is quite low down the list," says Dr Wells. "There's vanity. There's sheer frustration with the routine nature of the job. And pressure to publish is a very real reason to take short cuts, either for a junior scientist who wants to have it on their CV, or a senior scientist who wants it for applications for funds".
Dr Lock says postgraduates are under huge pressure to produce results. But postgraduates can also suffer on the other side of fraud: whistle blowing.
Whistle blowers need protection, says Dr Lock: "They are usually penalised far more than the miscreant."
An American survey last year revealed that more than half of postgraduates believe they cannot report possible misconduct by staff without suffering retaliation, and almost a third of those surveyed in the study, published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, said they would expect sanctions for reporting another student.
Postgraduates also need to be taught not to be "jerks" as well as not to be "crooks", some believe. Being a jerk is inadvertently committing fraud through ignorance of appropriate research techniques.
The terms were coined in the US, although some jerks can verge on crookedness with research which is so sloppy that it is almost fraudulent, Dr Lock says.
Dr Wells says every academic institution should have a standard monitoring procedure to deal with suspect data. The message to postgraduates should be that it is manifestly not in their own interests to try to commit fraud.
He wants a uniform set of procedures, backed by a disinterested central body chaired by, perhaps, a high court judge. An individual university would lack the necessary distance from an incident on its own campus, and would also lack accumulated expertise - although scientific fraud exists, it is not rife.
And this is another reason why Professor London thinks a fraud squad is necessary: it would give a general message about the standards of behaviour expected of researchers. "Scientists, by and large, are a good bunch, an honest bunch. The public do need reassurance about that," he says.