Ungentlemanly behaviour among researchers in the United Kingdom should be taken more seriously as an act of scientific misconduct, according to a leading academic.
Instances of the theft of ideas by unscrupulous peer reviewers or former colleagues - sometimes unwittingly - are going undetected as pressure to compete for grants increases, argued Raymond Spier, co-editor of the journal Science and Engineering Ethics.
He complained that the government is failing to take a lead in devising strong ethical codes that would help institutions, many of which still refused to take the problem seriously, and take a consistent line to tackle the problem.
His claims come as the editor-in-chief of the journal Science criticised United States government efforts to define scientific misconduct, and for neglecting more common instances of improper conduct.
Dr Spier, professor of science and engineering ethics at the University of Surrey, said that the UK was lagging behind the US and Germany in drawing up guidelines on how to tackle cases of scientific misconduct.
This expands the reach of scientific ethics beyond the debates over the impact of research, such as cloning, genetic engineering or nuclear energy.
"Progress is required not only on a widely agreed definition of scientific misconduct, but also on the procedures which need to be adopted to deal with individuals who are alleged to have infringed accepted practices," he said.
In the absence of central guidance, he said it is vital for institutions to establish protocols through which cases of scientific misconduct could be fairly and appropriately adjudicated.
Cases of unseemly conduct among scientists are generally relegated to stories that circulate throughout the community and are by their nature very difficult to prove, said Professor Spier.
"I'm sure it goes on as we are forced into this highly competitive situation for grants, but you're not going to get hard evidence," he said.
Nevertheless, Professor Spier said a wider recognition of the problem might persuade some potential miscreants to play fair instead.
In the US, consultation over an all-embracing definition of scientific misconduct, drawn up by the National Science and Technology Council of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, will soon end.
It defines scientific misconduct as "fabrication, falsification or plagiarism in proposing, performing or reviewing research or in reporting research results".
If a researcher is found to have breached the code, they could find themselves stripped of their federal funding and barred
from making future applications.
However, Floyd Bloom, editor-in-chief of Science, said the definition is not broad enough and does not embrace more common "insidious and disruptive" acts involving the stealing of ideas and data.
"No nation's scientific community is immune to the various obvious and not so obvious forms of misconduct; thus, there needs to be ongoing international discussion of these issues," said Mr Bloom.
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