Thursday, November 18, 2004

Richard Lewontin’s Discussion of a Practice Constituting "A Pervasive Dishonesty" in Science

Dear Colleagues:

In the November 18, 2004 issue of The New York Review of Books, Professor Richard Lewontin -- of Harvard, no less -- assails a practice in the field of science that is closely similar to the problem raised in other fields by the Ogletree affair. The practice in question is that laboratory directors take credit for work done in their laboratories by others rather than by themselves. This is not so different from professors in other fields putting their names on books or articles written in whole or in part by others, which is the problem raised by the Ogletree matter.

Lewontin calls the science custom "a pervasive dishonesty in the practice of science that makes a certain level of intellectual corruption characteristic of the institution." One would add that the custom in science is not only "a pervasive dishonesty" there, but is also symptomatic of one form of the wider dishonesty which has corrupted the nation in all fields and institutions and which must be rooted out if we are to claim that America is a society of integrity.


The relevant portion of Lewontin’s article is attached.*

Excerpt From Lewontin’s Article:

Despite the sophistication of Judson's analysis he has missed a pervasive dishonesty in the practice of science that makes a certain level of intellectual corruption characteristic of the institution. The dishonesty consists in the way credit for scientific research is falsely ascribed to some of the authors of jointly signed scientific papers. He brushes by this practice by referring to "gift authorship," but, far from a willing gift, it is an exaction that the powerful impose on the weak. Science is carried out for the most part in a collection of cottage industries, work groups called "laboratories," but that is a synecdoche. The group is headed by a senior scientist, sometimes accompanied by a more junior but established colleague, and includes postdoctoral fellows, research associates, graduate students, visiting scientists, and technical assistants all working in offices and laboratory rooms clustered around the laboratory director's own space.

It is almost always the case that the laboratory director performs no actual experimental work. There is considerable variation from laboratory to laboratory and from project to project within the laboratory in the degree to which the senior scientist participates in the conception, planning, supervision, and eventual writing-up of the work. In many cases the entire project from conception to publication is without any significant input from the director. Much of what is done, however, is supported by funds from various grants and contracts obtained by the director as the euphemistically named "principal investigator."

Regardless of the actual involvement of the laboratory director in the intellectual and physical work of a research project, he or she has unchallenged intellectual property rights in the project, much as a lord had unchallenged property rights in the product of serfs or peasants occupying dependent lands. The chief product of a laboratory is in the form of published papers and the chief manifestation of the director's intellectual property rights is that he or she will be coauthor on every publication from the laboratory, sometimes including even general review papers and book chapters written by subordinate group members. Such property rights explain how, for example, Professor Eugene Braunwald of the Harvard Medical School came to be an author, at the age of fifty, of over six hundred publications.

Unfortunately for Braunwald, one of his protégés and coauthors, John Darsee, turned out to be a detected fabricator. One wonders how many sleepless nights Braunwald spent worrying about those other publications. But if laboratory directors as a matter of course claim authorship of work to which they have made no intellectual contribution or only a trivial one then they are, year in and year out, committing an intellectual fraud from which they reap immense rewards of ego, prestige, income, and social power. Moreover, by an unconscious affirmation on the part of the scientific community as a whole, these rewards grow autocatalytic. Robert Merton, the founder of modern social studies of science, called attention to a phenomenon he named the "Matthew Effect" after Matthew 25:29:

For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.

Irrespective of the order of authors on a paper, it is referred to informally and sometimes formally by the name of the best-known author. In laboratory libraries papers are filed under the name of the "senior" author and remembered and discussed under his or her name. I was an indignant witness to an extreme case of the Matthew Effect. A graduate student in my laboratory had published a seminal paper, without my name on it, on an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase that everyone agrees has revolutionized the experimental study of population genetics. Shortly afterward I gave a lecture on a different subject, at the end of which a colleague came up from the audience and said, "That was very interesting but what I really admire is your paper on alcohol dehydrogenase." There is some justice in the world, however, and the misappropriation of intellectual property occasionally means that one may try to pass a bad check. The Matthew Effect then does its work. The fraud attributed to Imanishi-Kari becomes known as the "Baltimore Affair." To them that hath it shall be given.

Scientists in training are conscious of the appropriation of credit for their work by senior scientists and they resent it but feel that they cannot protest. It is not that they place no value on the details of authorship. They will fight bitterly with colleagues of their own rank about who should be first author on jointly authored publications. Yet when they too become seniors they will engage in the same fabrications of intellectual credit. The fabrications and falsifications of scientific results that we condemn as fraud are carried out from the desire for fame, status, and economic reward. But the misappropriation of credit by senior scientists arises from the same motives. How can we expect scientists to hold literal truth about nature as an inviolable standard, when they participate, en masse, in a conscious everyday falsification about the production of that truth? That is an aspect of what Judson calls "the culture of fraud" that is far more relevant to scientific honesty than the behavior of the executives of Enron on whom most scientists claim to look with disdain.

*If you wish to respond to this email/blog, please email your response to me at velvel@mslaw.edu. Your response may be posted on the blog if you have no objection; please tell me if you do object.

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