Truth and Trustworthiness in Research

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The level of trust that has characterized science and its relationship with society has contributed to a period of unparalleled scientific productivity. But this trust will endure only if the scientific community devotes itself to exemplifying and transmitting the values associated with ethical scientific conduct.2
The scientific research enterprise is built on a foundation of trust: trust that the results reported by others are valid and trust that the source of novel ideas will be appropriately acknowledged in the scientific literature. To maintain this trust in the current climate of research, we believe that more attention must be given by the scientific community to the mechanisms that sustain and transmit the values that are associated with ethical scientific conduct.3
These quotations mark a watershed in the discussion of the ethics of research within the research community. The first is from the new edition of On Being a Scientist published early in 1995 and the second is from a recent article in Science magazine by National Academy of Sciences President, Bruce Alberts, and Institute of Medicine President, Kenneth Shine. The quotations lend an authoritative voice to the growing recognition that the research community must do more than develop quasi-legal mechanisms for handling charges of falsification, fabrication and plagiarism. They call for sustained ethical reflection on a range of questions of research responsibility. Central to this recognition is an emphasis on trustworthiness and not merely on trusting. Alberts and Shine concur with Harold Varmus in recognizing that it is a mistake simply to trust that science is self-correcting and ignore wrongdoing in research.4 (How are Scientific Corrections Made? by Nelson Kiang and the commentary on that paper by Robert Guertin in this issue richly illustrate the point that such trust is naive and mistaken. As they argue, it is often very difficult to remove mistaken or even fabricated results from the literature.) The bulk of both documents from which these two quotations are taken concern, not the acts that are generally agreed to constitute “research misconduct,”5 but a host of subtler, and more common violations of standards of ethical conduct in research, violations that nonetheless erode the trust required for research to flourish.
Discussion of trust and trustworthiness in research takes us farther than the discussion of even general rules governing research practice, such as “Do not fabricate or falsify data” or “Only those who have contributed substantially to the research reported in an article should be listed as authors.” Important as moral rules are as components of ethical standards, trustworthy behavior often requires the responsible exercise of discretion which is a much more complex matter than simple rule-following.
Furthermore, consideration of trust and trustworthiness requires attention to the multiplicity of perspectives on an enterprise like research: every party to research trusts and is trusted in some way. Consideration of trustworthy behavior and the integrity of the research enterprise fosters the examination of that enterprise from the perspective of every party to it, rather than from the perspective of the rule makers alone.6 Such an expanded perspective on research practice may be especially important in fields where it is the most junior and least prestigious members of research teams who actually make the observations.
As the philosopher Bernard Williams argued7, building the trust required for a complex cooperative enterprise requires understanding that situation. As he says, “there is no one problem of cooperation: the problem is always how a given set of people cooperates.” Of the greatest interest for the conduct of research is the trust and cooperation among researchers:

  • among collaborators, both among peer collaborators and between senior researchers and their trainees;

  • among research groups who build on each other's work;

  • among researchers and the institutions that are the primary sites of research and research education;

  • among the individuals and groups who review, publish and disseminate research findings

Trustworthiness among researchers is necessary to retain the public trust, although it is not sufficient.

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