Fraud in the house of science?

Perhaps a rare rotten apple here or there, the mandarins of the profession concede. But they are very infrequent and bound to be detected, they insist, in response to a recent flock of embarrassing disclosures.

These include publication, in supposedly screened journals, of a batch of plagiarized research papers. Apart from that, there's a nasty inter-university row in progress over the alleged "cooking" of some lab data at Yale, and elsewhere there are other suspected or established deviations from science's professional standards of truthfulness.

Rare? The fact is that nobody knows for sure, because seience's earnestly proclaimed methods of assessing the reliablilty of claimed scientific findings are surprisingly porous, while the incentives for shrewd corner-cutting are getting bigger all the time -- both for individuals and institutions.

Science's claims of purity do not rest on self-congratulatory notions about the ethical tone of its recruits and journeymen. Rather, they're mainly based on the down-to-earth, police-like concept that the manner in which science works virtually ensures the exposure of cheating as well as honest error. Thus, they'll tell you, acceptance of data or theory into the body of established scientific knowledge comes only at the conclusion of a long process of verification -- and at any time any case can be reopened for further examination.

The first step is publication in an established journal. But, continues the ritual explanation, nothing gets published without the approval of referees -- outside experts who evaluate a submission's worthiness for publication. After publication, the methodology and conclusions are available for wide examination and -- as they say in the research trade -- replication by other scientists.

Foolproof? Very far from it, starting with the refereeing process. There's no glory, pay or recognition in refereeing. It's done anonymously, to encourage candor and avoid professional strife, and it's presented as a good-citizen chore that comes with membership in the scientific community. As might be expected, there is considerable variation in the diligence that goes into this work, with carelessness protected by the realization that anonymity is insured.

But even if a paper is rejected once, for whatever reason, the publish-or-perish syndrome, abetted by a worldwide proliferation of scientific journals, virtually ensures that it's going to be published someplace down the line.

As for scientists' replicating the research of other scientists -- well, it happens but, for good reasons, not often. A report of an astonishing breakthrough will inspire repeat experiments, as will even some mundane work, in special circumstances. But in today's scarcity economy, no research foundation wants to put much of its money into repeating old experiments -- a preference well understood by money-seekers. Replication, that much-touted check on scientific authenticity, is relatively rare.

Probably the most effective check on scientific integrity arises from the big-team nature of a great deal of research. With many collaborators looking on, it can be perilous to falsify results or conceal information of public value. But this is not always so.

By invoking national security and blighting the careers of dissidents, the old Atomic Energy Commission effectively concealed for decades vast amounts of scientific information on the health effects of nuclear testing. And, as has repeatedly come out in cases of toxic contaminations, ugly findings by company scientists were simply dropped down the memory hole.

The mainline scientific community, mostly university-based, will control that such episodes are outside the strict traditions and safeguards of scientific integrity. However, there's as much wishfulness as rigor in those safeguards -- a fact that the institutions of science blithely refuse to recognize.

Meanwhile, the boundaries between science in academe, industry and government have become faint, and the trends are toward further reducing them in emulation of Japan, Inc.

At a time when public-policy issues are increasingly involved with complex scientific and technical considerations, it would be agreeable to know that the heart of science is pure. It may be, but that's a lot to take on faith and antiquated -- but easily improved -- methods of ensuring scientific integrity. For starters, why shouldn't those referees be identified, just as book reviewers are? And why not publicly catalog verification of experiments, to see how often it occurs?

From there we can move on to the more serious and difficult task of encouraging and sheltering those who would keep the faith inside the mammoth research institutions that design our future.