The University Record, February 18, 1998

National Conference on 'Managing Research Integrity': Both scientists and media need to do better job

Panelists for the session on 'Public and Media Perceptions of Academic Approaches to Integrity in Research' included (seated, from left) moderator Charles Eisendrath, Karl Leif Bates, Daniel S. Greenberg, Chris B. Pascal and (standing) Daniel Sharphorn. Photo by Bob Kalmbach

By Paula Saha

"I always tell people that working with media is a lot like using power tools--you can maim yourself in an instant or you can get a lot of good work done," said Karl Leif Bates, science writer for the Detroit News and Michigan Journalism Fellow.

Bates spoke as part of a panel on "Public and Media Perceptions of Academic Approaches to Integrity in Research" last week at the conference on "Managing Integrity in Research." The group addressed issues in the media surrounding scientific misconduct cases, the history of scientific misconduct and academic research reporting in general.

Bates was joined by Daniel S. Greenberg, founder of Science & Government Report and visiting scholar, Department of History of Science, Medicine and Technology at the Johns Hopkins University; Chris B. Pascal, acting director of the Public Health Service's Office of Research Integrity (ORI); and Daniel H. Sharphorn, U-M interim co-general counsel. The session was moderated by Charles R Eisendrath, associate professor of communication studies and director, Michigan Journalism Fellows.

According to Greenberg, scientific misconduct didn't "arrive" on the political and media scene until the 1980s when Harvard cardiologist John Darcy was caught doctoring his research tapes. It was that case, Greenberg said, along with a number of other timely investigations, that made political Washington "take notice."

Eventually, the attention prompted the establishment of the ORI. The agency is required to sign off on all cases of scientific misconduct and, in its dealings, has a great deal of interaction with the media. According to Pascal, who has been acting director of the office for two years, "even in science, which is supposed to be academic and intellectual, controversy sells."

The issue of individual scientists' privacy has made scientific misconduct cases more difficult to talk about in the media, Pascal said. Even an allegation of misconduct linked to a scientist's name can mean professional ruin. Nevertheless, Pascal, an experienced investigator of misconduct cases, insists that the best route for institutions is to "Say 'no' to no comment. If you can't talk about the details of the case, talk about the process."

Of course, this proves difficult when it comes to litigation. Public relations staff and lawyers have very different goals in these cases. According to Sharphorn, "lawyers are 'control freaks.' We don't want anyone to say anything that could come back to haunt them in a lawsuit."

Sharphorn used another perspective of "public," the traditional courtroom jury, to question the efficacy of the traditional jury/court system in dealing with scientific misconduct. Citing a recent case on asbestosis, Sharphorn pointed out where the "adversarial system" falls short in these cases.

In the case, the jury delivered a verdict that many thought was based on its lack of understanding of the facts of asbestosis. However, when the case was further scrutinized, investigators found that it was not a weak jury, but rather the content of what the jury was presented. "It was not in the best interest of either side to explain all the facts of asbestosis," Sharphorn explained.

To avoid similar miscommunications in the general public, media coverage can do a better job, Bates admitted. He pointed out, however, that this was not completely the fault of the press. "The press publishes half-baked, inaccurate stuff because that's all we can get. Be forthcoming," he said to academic institutions. "Tell us the good and the bad of what's going on in your labs. We understand confidentiality and there is no problem with shielding names."

The panelists all agreed on the importance of accurate and thorough reporting on research integrity. "The public is the consumer of research." Pascal said. "The government and institutions are at a disadvantage in media wars, but the public and media responses raise legitimate concerns."