The Mertonian Principles Revised: Can the Normative Structure of SciencePrevent Fraud?

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IN THE PAST, SCIENCE HAS been commonly associated with the pursuit of truth in a controlled and honest manner. For this reason, the existence of fraud within the scientific craft has been largely ignored, partly owing to its assumed non-existence, but also because it was traditionally maintained that the normative structure of science possessed inherent mechanisms to prevent deviant acts in scientific inquiry. The present essay calls this assumption into question and investigates the extent to which the structure of science averts scientific misconduct. To achieve this goal, the study starts by defining scientific fraud and then scrutinizes the idealistic conceptualizations of the normative structure of science in order to determine whether these are presently applicable or not. Finally, the paper addresses several potential motivational factors leading scientists to commit fraud and demonstrates that certain aspects of the scientific structure rather than the individual make such acts possible or even likely.

Although a precise definition is lacking, by scientific fraud we understand an act of deception whereby one’s work or the work of others is consciously and intentionally misrepresented. It belongs to the wider category of scientific misconduct, defined as deviation from accepted ethical practices for proposing, conducting, and reporting research. Scientific fraud may take numerous forms, the most common of which are falsification of data, such as outright fabrication of data, deceptive selection and reporting of findings, and omission of conflicting information. Moreover, scientific fraud is a label for improprieties of authorship, which includes plagiarism and other improper assignment of credit such as excluding others or claiming the work of someone else as one’s own. Additionally, under the term scientific fraud are classified acts of misappropriation of others’ ideas, for instance through improper use of information or influence gained by privileged access, such as service on peer review panels, editorial boards, and policy boards of research funding organizations. Finally, it is necessary to distinguish fraud from honest error and from ambiguities of interpretation that are considered inevitable in the scientific process.

For many years, scientific fraud as defined above was not perceived as an issue of concern, given that the normative structure of science would make such acts unlikely. This view was most clearly articulated by Robert K. Merton, who understood the institutional goal of science as being the “extension of certified knowledge” and outlined four norms that he saw central to this pursuit. Universalism, as he maintained, implies that the validity and truth of scientific statements be totally separated from the personal characteristics of the one who initiates them. Communality entails that scientific findings should be freely shared with others, whilst secret or classified research is antithetical to the spirit of science. Disinterestedness refers to the fact that the scientist’s research be guided not by personal motives (e.g. profit), but by the wish to extend scientific knowledge. Finally, organized skepticism means that scientists should be encouraged to examine openly, honestly, and publicly each other’s work and provide constructive criticism. Merton believed that conforming to these norms generates two types of control mechanisms that discourage fraud in science.

According to him, the first is an “inner mechanism” secured by the scientist through the internalization of norms and other processes of socialization. In the long process of training, the scientist assimilates the guidelines and methods of scientific inquiry and learns that fraud represents the most serious crime in the search for scientific certainties. The second form of control in science is an “external mechanism”, which follows from the norms of communality and organized skepticism and implies that if a scientific result were important enough, other scientists would try to repeat it. Replication of the experiments would facilitate exposure of cheating and encourage honesty. For this reason, science has commonly been perceived as self-policing and self-correcting and fraud extremely rare if not completely absent. Therefore, “in the past scientists widely believed that science possessed sufficient internal checks to effectively deter fraud, to discover dishonesty so quickly and efficiently that the resulting damage to a scientist’s professional career would be too great to risk.” Nevertheless, an overview of the present scientific reality should not only confirm that social control mechanisms in science are much weaker than usually accepted, but also that there are structural as well as personal incentives conducive to scientific fraud, which place doubt on the traditional assertions.

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To begin with, the four aforementioned Mertonian principles can be criticized for failing to accurately reflect the present state of affairs in the field of science. For instance, the norm of universalism hardly appears to be satisfied nowadays, given the fact that the truth of a scientific statement is not always separated from the personal characteristics of the individual scientist. Instead, “truth” in science is often negotiated and clearly depends on the prestige of the scientist who produces the statement. The acceptance or rejection of claims in science is often determined by the source and their fit to prevailing beliefs ...

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