Honesty in Reporting Research
A revised version of a lesson plan developed by
Kenneth Abbott, Mepham High School, Bellmore, Long Island, NY
Courses for Which the Lesson is Intended:
All science classes.
Types of Teaching/Learning Activities Employed in this Lesson:
Students view and discuss a video on dishonesty. Then they have a homework
assignment to apply this discussion to household products that have resulted
from scientific research by asking what dangers these products might pose
if the research behind them had been falsified or misrepresented.
Categories that Best Describe this Lesson:
Behavior of scientists.
Behavior of students.
Ethics/Values Issues Raised by this Lesson:
Importance of laboratory honesty, especially in research that has a
direct impact on human health and welfare.
Designed for use at the beginning of science classes that include a
laboratory component. The teacher outlines the requirements of laboratory
work in the class. The teacher then asks the students what they think about
the importance of not cheating or fudging when collecting data.
Following a brief discussion of their ideas, the teacher shows the first
few minutes of the Nova video, Do Scientists Cheat?, which emphasizes
the importance of honesty in data reporting. [Note: Like most Nova videos
that are more than three years old, Do Scientists Cheat?, which
was produced by WGBH, Boston in 1988, is no longer available for purchase
or loan from the producer. It is, however in the collection of many libraries,
academic institution and other video archives from which it may be borrowed.
One such source is the Wisconsin Regional Primate Research Center, phone
(608) 263-3512, fax to (608) 263-4031, e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org,
write to the Primate Center Library, 1220 Capitol Court, Madison, WI 53715,
or request it (video #VT0113) through interlibrary loan at your local library.]
Then the video is fast-forwarded to the segment in which 8th
graders are conducting a pond study. Before showing this segment, students
are asked how honest they think the 8th graders will be in reporting
their data. Following the showing of that segment, students are invited
to discuss their reactions.
The teacher highlights the idea that students, and researchers in general,
should not anticipate what they think they will find and alter their observations
to match their preconceived notions. The teacher indicates that student
projects will not be graded on the basis of the conclusions reached so
much as the quality of the process.
The last segment of the video is then shown. This features Robert Sprague,
a researcher who reported the fabrication of data by someone who was doing
research intended to benefit mental patients in a state hospital. Sprague
stresses the importance of honesty in science research because of the risks
dishonesty poses to the general population.
Students are then given a homework writing assignment: Find five things
in their household that they think were developed from scientific research.
For each item, they are asked describe the sorts of dangers these products
might pose if the research behind them had been falsified or misrepresented.
Time permitting, the student examples can be discussed during the next
This is one of many ways to introduce the idea that honesty in conducting
and reporting scientific research is fundamental both to good science and
to the public interest. It is important to emphasize that what is at stake
is not merely the reputation, and possibly the career, of scientists who
get caught cheating, but the well-being of others.
It is not just the well-being of the general public that can be seriously
affected by the fabrication, falsification, or misrepresentation of data.
As the case of Robert Sprague shows, those who report scientific misconduct
may go through hardships. Although his wife was dying of cancer at the
time, Sprague was so concerned about the fabrication of data he discovered,
that he took on the responsibilities of a whistleblower. In fact, it was
partly because of the realization that his wife's well-being depended on
honest, reliable research regarding drugs and treatment that Sprague was
motivated to act on behalf of others who are similarly dependent. Sprague's
article, "The Voice of Experience" (Science and Engineering Ethics,
Vol. 4, Issue 1, 1998, pp. 33-44), chronicles some of his experiences and
those of other whistleblowers. Often it is not only those on whom the whistle
is blown who challenge whistleblowers, but also institutions within which
those accused work. Institutions also wish to preserve their public reputation
as reliable. They may also find it difficult to accept the idea that one
of their researchers has cheated, and they may feel accused of themselves
failing to monitor carefully the work of the accused. In Sprague's case,
he found that, even though he had submitted lengthy documentation of data
fabrication at another institution, he was the first to be investigated;
and it took several years for the case to be resolved.
For a good account of another well-known fabrication case, see Case Study #1
in Chapter 4 of Section I. For an statements about the importance of integrity
in science, see: Sigma Xi's booklet, Honor in Science (Research Triangle
Park, NC, 1991); and the Commission on Research Integrity's report, Integrity
and Misconduct in Research, 2nd ed. (U.S. Department of Health
and Human Services, 1993).
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