Is the Institution of “Grant-Funded” Research Killing Scientific Integrity?

Katherine Harmon of Scientific American questions whether scientific retraction can change public opinion. In her blog post, Katherine writes that recent high-profile retractions such as the Wakefield paper linking Autism to vaccination or the retraction of a South Korean claim that a lab had cloned human embryonic stem cells has resulted in what is perhaps an unfair jading of public opinion against the validity of scientific research.

The big question that looms over our heads is why are scientists finding it (increasingly) tempting to publish false data or conduct scientific experiments using questionable research practices? Is it the enticement for fame and glory that fuels their unethical behavior? One foreign post doc recently told me that many of his colleagues were eager to find post doc positions in high-profile American labs with the expectation that they would finish their post-doctoral work with a Nature paper or two under their belts. Of course, it didn’t take them long to realize that precious few people have the merit of publishing a paper in such a high-impact journal especially so early in their career.

Or perhaps the structure of grant-funded research is to blame. The old adage of “publish or perish” is stronger than ever and with the latest in “omics” technology, the amount of data needed to publish is becoming staggering.

This whole debate reminds me of an experiment that I conducted while completing my masters. I was studying the transcriptional activity of a certain gene and I found a paper in a peer reviewed journal that had published PCR results on my gene of interest. Since I needed to conduct a similar PCR experiment, I ordered the same set of primers and followed the PCR protocol as per the published methods. Unfortunately, I was disappointed when the expression levels of the gene I had expected to be upregulated under the treatment conditions did not appear in my PCR results. Perplexed, I blasted the primers in genebank and I found that the primers were actually located in the gene’s intron! (In case you’ve forgotten your central dogma, the intron is the part of the gene that is excluded from the mRNA transcript). Needless to say, I was pretty upset. I didn’t even think about Blasting the primers prior to ordering them. Positive PCR results (using mRNA) had already been published in a peer reviewed journal using the same primers. I didn’t feel the need to repeat the due diligence that another scientist had already done. I felt duped.

All this is to say that one cannot overstress the importance of using solid scientific methodology. Skipping steps in today’s world is simply not an option. With the thousands of data points to be gleamed from both proteomic and genomic studies, how can you afford to rely on someone else’s “honesty” when conducting your own research. Moreover, it becomes even more critical to engage in proper sample handling and preparation techniques. Everything that you do needs to be documented properly and followed to the letter. Protect yourself and your research. Our world simply cannot afford another retraction.

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2 Responses to “Is the Institution of “Grant-Funded” Research Killing Scientific Integrity?”

  1. Andy says:

    So, did this refute the data in the publication that you were referencing? Just interested.

  2. avi_wener says:

    Actually, it may have refuted the data…but we’ll never know. You see, the authors reported a negative finding which would make sense considering that the primers they used were against an intron and wouldn’t have amplified a signal in any event. It could very well be that their data is correct but negative data is very hard to prove without proper positive controls. (A very good reason for always having positive controls along with your PCR data. We’re so careful about including negative controls but we tend to neglect our positive controls).

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