IN science work, a major badge of excellence is the acceptance of original research for publication in peer-reviewed academic journals such as Science or Nature.
Publication of a new scientific breakthrough or insight brings recognition, career advancement, and, in the most exceptional cases, starts a high achiever on a road to the ultimate award — the Nobel Prize.
Given its importance, the pursuit of publication is bound to lead sometimes to over-zealousness and elements of unethical conduct, which in recent years have involved many high-profile cases and personalities.
“Scientific fraud” describes the intentional misrepresentation of research methods, procedures, or results. Its formal definition includes “fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing scientific research, or in reporting research results”.
Infamous instances in recent times include these:
IN KOREA, Hwang Woo-suk fabricated a series of stem cell research experiments. Previously considered a pioneering expert in the field, he was famous for two science articles in which he reported having cloned human embryonic stem cells. After the 2006 revelation that much of his work was faked, Hwang was charged with embezzlement and bioethics law violations, resulting in a suspended two-year prison sentence, was barred from doing stem cell research by the South Korean government, and was fired from Seoul National University.
IN AMERICA, Dr Anil Potti resigned from Duke University in 2010 after his credentials were debunked, including his claim of having been a Rhodes Scholar. The revelation led to the suspension of huge research grants, the retraction of nine of Potti’s papers on personalised cancer treatments and suits against the university by research patients.
We have our share of unethical conduct in research in this part of the world too:
TWO YEARS AGO, three scientists affiliated with Singapore’s Nanyang Technical University (NTU) and National University of Singapore claimed that suppression of myostatin — a protein that regulates muscle growth — put people in “fat-burning mode” and let them shed kilos. NTU investigations revealed that laboratory experiment data had been falsified, leading to the retraction of all related papers published in academic journals, and to reprimands.
ALSO IN 2016, an uproar at Universiti Malaya ensued when a faculty of medicine research group was found to have falsified and manipulated data published in four peer-reviewed journals. Those articles have likewise been retracted.
It is in this context that the Malaysian Code of Responsible Conduct in Research (MCRCR) was born. It will be key to boosting and safeguarding our science and research endeavours.
Adherence and compliance with the code will ensure that research in Malaysia is pursued earnestly and honestly, with integrity and accountability. Our researchers and research entities — universities, research institutes, laboratories and research programmes — accept and embrace the code of conduct so crucial in ensuring that vigorous research efforts are conducted with propriety.
The code will help convince peers, research enterprises and funders that research ethics are well entrenched in Malaysia. It will strengthen the research culture and enterprise, and maintain public confidence in and support for this work vital to health, the environment and our economic wellbeing.
The code will enhance science governance in Malaysia and promote efficient implementation of policies and strategies through transparency and accountability in research and development. It will help avoid and manage unacceptable behaviour in research, minimise misuse of funds and simultaneously raise our standard and quality of research.
MCRCR was developed with representatives from public and private universities, research institutes, agencies and ministries to ensure a well-rounded code of ethics.
The steering committee referred to best practices from a host of distinguished international institutions, such as the Australian Research Council, US National Science Foundation, European Science Foundation, UK Research Council and Global Research Council.
The code not only enshrines the principles and practice of responsible research, it will help guide the management of breaches. It also reflects and integrates the values, culture and laws of Malaysia.
Endorsed last year by our National Science Council (NSC), it will be used by stakeholders as the main reference for ethics in research going forward.
In the words of the chairman of the steering committee, senior Professor Datuk Khalid Yusoff: “MCRCR is a statement that Malaysian researchers and research entities are committed to integrity and accountability in their pursuit of science.”
In welcoming its publication, NSC chairman Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak said the document would be key to Malaysian science blossomming and bearing fruit earlier rather than later.
The writer is science adviser to the prime minister and chairman, board of directors of Universiti Malaya