Why Your Favorite Journals Need to Put a Dog in the Ethics Fight*
There is nothing an journal editor loves more than seeing a late night email from my best friend, Paul Brookes, in their mailbox. Paul is a genius. Well, technically he’s a super genius, mitochondrial physiology dood. In his non-existent spare time, he bravely faces down really horrible examples of fraud in his field. Not too long ago, Paul ran the most hilariously snarky blog outing fraud by overlay blots from the same authors in different papers, showing how changing them, cropping things a bit here and there and altering contrast were tools of the trade of fraudsters. And he outed a lot of scientists who faked their data. In a very sweary way.
The combination of his swearing honesty and snarkiness got a cult like following on the now defunct Science-Fraud.org. Sadly, Paul’s anonymous posts were tracked back to him, and soon he was up to his knickers in lawsuits, administrators and menacing scientists he had debunked. See his fabulous interview in Science here
Three years later, Paul lives in the lap of luxury having received the NIH Directors Award for Valor and Distinction awarded to whistleblowers to continue to prosper without fear or professional retaliation. Asked how he felt about the award, we imagine he would ask us what the fock we were talking about, because we just made that award up. In fact, we were too lazy to even contact Paul.
There are no awards for doing this. There’s just a bunch of people who know you did the right thing and will occasionally buy you a beer, some judgy ‘other people’ who think you should have minded your own business and a lot of hassles.
If one thing has improved since the demise of Science-Fraud.org it is the increased awareness of RetractionWatch.com. If you haven’t visited RetractionWatch, you should gird your loins for one of the most dead ugliest websites you’ve ever seen. It could only be made worse with Comic Sans and a rainbow background. What Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus lack in web design, they make up for by holding researchers accountable for cumulative violations of ethics. Did someone say author ‘Leaderboard’ for most number of retracted papers? Yeah….they’ve got that.
But more than simply pointing you to some awesome guys wearing white hats, The Fighty Squirrel has yet another suggestion. And this one is for our Society Journal Editorial types. We are learning about ethics in science by watching horrible things happen and reacting. This needs to end. Not surprisingly, if the only interaction you have with ethics is squashing down the bugs (sorry/notsorry, members of the Leaderborad), then Ethics is sort of going to suck. I’ve seen folks actually embrace ethical dilemmas and it’s pretty darn cool.
Look at my friends over at Society for Vascular Surgery. They publish stories of ethical angst and have people WAY smarter than me weigh in on what to do. Just this month, they talk about what’s a doc to do when their hospital is going super glam and over-promising good outcomes for really hard surgeries. Do you stage a coup? Tell the ethics folks? Move your practice? Tell the media? I’m not going to tell you. Go read the dang article. It’s like a page long.
How refreshing would it be to have some cool new editor type like Jeremy Berg over at AAAS/Science or any of the many other working scientist who serve as editors take a part a common ethical dilemma and guide trainees thru the hard work of solving these problems? Pretty damn cool, I’d say. Our alternative is that we fail to cover whistleblowers like Paul in the accolades of scientific societies, placing brave and outspoken scientists in a horrifically perilous situation. Moreover, by not proactively demonstrating how complicated issues can be solved by good people working hard, our trainees are missing out on one of the most complicated and important parts of our jobs – doing the right thing.
There is a lot of grey area in ethical and professional interactions that would improve vastly if openly and candidly discussed in the context of a professional society that took these issues seriously. Journals and professional societies have an amazing opportunity to be leaders in starting these discussions. Let’s hope they start stepping up.
I single out Jeremy because he wears a minions hat in real life and that should not stand for an adult male. He’s also new to Science and utterly awesome, but I firmly believe all professional societies and their journals need to both step up and invite discussions of ethics with their members and step forward to protect those who have done right by science.
*Also, dog fighting is seriously ungood. I just ran out of possible titles. It was late.