[OUTLOOK]The perils of needing to come first

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[OUTLOOK]The perils of needing to come first

The prosecutors’ investigation report on stem cell scientist Hwang Woo-suk’s manipulation of his papers reveals that the core of the scandal was a lack of ethics.
Seoul National University announced yesterday that it will set up a committee to receive insider reports on fraudulent research and inspect the results of suspicious studies.
The university also announced detailed plans to solve the problems of fabricating research data, which has become a big issue since the Hwang scandal.
Every researcher fights temptations. Some waste their time compiling PowerPoint slides and some embezzle research funds for personal purposes. Some researchers go even further and commit such “crucially unethical conduct” as fabrication of data or plagiarism.
Being second best is not good enough in the academic world. This rule encourages unethical conduct such as plagiarism and data fabrication and manipulation. Unethical conduct can take place in all academic fields but the types of wrongdoing differ from subject to subject.
Law experts and students analyze precedent cases and introduce other experts’ theories. Plagiarism is the main problem among law experts.
Meanwhile, economists use data that are already known to the public and some of them manipulate those data when making their own statistics.
The most serious cases occur in the natural science field, in which scientists produce initial data on their own in controlled experiments. Others cannot verify the data without doing the same experiments.
Biology is the trickiest field of all.
Conducting experiments in a perfectly controlled way on living organisms is easier said than done. For this reason, biological experiments are often compared to “first-class cuisine that only a chef can cook.”
No matter how detailed a recipe a paper may present, a researcher other than the author, who does not have the same instincts, might not replicate the original experiments.
It is nearly impossible to confirm the results of a science paper by only reading it.
Thus, the best thing to do for a junior researcher is to join a great master’s laboratory and learn his “secret formula.” As a result, popular laboratories are full of researchers.
Having too many researchers can lead to more cases of unethical research procedures.
A popular laboratory needs to feed all its researchers, no matter what it takes. The lab needs more research funds and thus must present more research results.
This attracts more researchers and the laboratory then becomes like a unicycle ― the moment you stop pedaling, you fall.
Once a laboratory is on this unicycle, it is an easy and tempting choice to commit unethical conduct in its research.
Modern research has the traits of art because researchers collect and combine many co-researchers’ results and many experiments are difficult to duplicate by other researchers.
Studies these days are like the works of the video artist Paik Nam-jun. Distinguishing the genuine article from fakes by a mere glimpse is never easy.
An institute to inspect the cases insiders report and more strict measures to prevent such incidents from happening will be more effective than having self-monitoring by researchers or placing the responsibility on following studies.
We hope the Seoul National University’s measures will bring positive outcomes.

* The writer is a professor of economics at Hongik University.


by Jun Sung-in
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