Trials and tribulations of scientific research

Last Updated : 24 July 2021, 05:00 IST

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In the past few weeks, news of scientific malpractice at one of India’s premier research institutes, the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bengaluru, has stirred up a storm in academic circles. Social media is awash with reports of malpractice, forgery, academic bullying, harassment and toxic work cultures in institutes and labs across the country. For many researchers, this incident has brought back memories of their own struggles, either as witnesses or victims of such practices.

Science, with all its benevolence, is often thought to be infallible and flawless. But, like all human endeavours, science is subject to social pressures, human errors and misjudgement. When presented to the public, science is packaged as a systematic black box of knowledge regularly updated by new, headline-grabbing discoveries or life-changing inventions. The specifics of how this knowledge is obtained, also called the scientific methodology, is often glossed over. Most science is incremental, with each new piece of research making small advances on previous work. A serendipitous scientific discovery like that of penicillin is rare.

Even in those cases, scientific ideas do not suddenly emerge fully formed in scientists’ heads, nor are new inventions built from scratch in labs. Isaac Newton, one of the most well-known scientists ever, summed it up by saying this, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

How research works

Science works by making painstakingly detailed observations of nature, carrying out experiments, drawing inferences from the data collected, and verifying their validity via further experiments or observations. A piece of scientific research can be a result of an experiment (testing if a drug works against a disease), a hypothesis explaining some interesting observations (deciphering how the drug works) or new tests of an existing theory (verifying if indeed the drug works as once thought). Once the investigation is carried out, its findings are reported to enable other scientists to make further advances.

Telling the world about the results of scientific research is a long-drawn-out process that could take months or years of toil. Once researchers arrive at their novel findings, they try to publish these results in journals regarded as the best in the business because of their global reach and rigorous review process.

As science continuously evolves, new observations and experiments carried out in quick succession rapidly change what we know. At times, these changes can be bewildering to the public, giving an impression that science is mired with speculations rather than evidence. However, it is only natural that as more experiments are performed and observations made, conclusions and related evidence also change, replacing old knowledge with new knowledge.

A key yardstick to measure the robustness of a scientific result is its ‘reproducibility’. In other words, irrespective of who carries out an experiment and where, its results should be the same. Failure to reproduce or replicate results indicates intentional or unintentional mistakes in the process.

Pitfalls and malpractices

Despite the many checks and balances in the scientific method, the process of scientific research is not free from pitfalls. For example, during the research and the review process, the original researchers and reviewers could have overlooked certain things in ascertaining the accuracy of the published work, making it irreproducible. When such inconsistencies are detected, as in the case of the NCBS study, the research paper is retracted from the journal and the ‘knowledge’ it added to science is considered void. However, there are deeper and darker issues that plague the process of doing science.

Publications are often the yardstick of professional standing for scientists and determine their career prospects, including appointments and promotions. This rush to ‘publish or perish’ sometimes leads to some researchers indulging in malpractices like manipulating experiments, fabricating results or duplicating images to obtain predetermined outcomes and add a publication to their list.

In extreme cases, research students have faced bullying, harassment or toxic work cultures, resulting in poor mental health and well-being. Unequal power balances between supervisors and research students in many institutes make it extremely difficult to call out such practices without negative repercussions for the victims.

The widespread commercialisation of scientific journals, often owned by for-profit corporations, has resulted in a profiteering ecosystem. Many journals ask anyone accessing research papers to pay, despite the fact that most research is publicly funded. More research papers published translate into higher profits for the publishers resulting in the pressure to lower the bar for accepting a piece of research for publication.

Calls to move to an open-access model, where anyone can access research papers free of cost, have grown louder in recent years. However, this model involves researchers paying publishers a hefty, one-time article processing charge (APC) that runs into a few lakhs of rupees. For many resource-starved scientists in less-affluent countries, these costs constitute significant barriers to their research work.

There are also concerns about the rise of ‘fake’ journals that publish research papers without stringent review processes, diluting the quality of science.

Science is indeed a necessary pursuit, producing valuable, verifiable knowledge about the world around us. However, since it is carried out by people, the process of scientific research is inherently political, biased, and at times, flawed. While we celebrate science for its joys and jubilations, we should be mindful of its trials and tribulations, and address them through the lens of systemic changes.

What becomes ‘science’?

A research paper is drafted—a document that lists the context of the discovery, what was known earlier, what the researchers did and what new things they found.

This document is submitted to scientific journals periodic publications where such new discoveries are reported.

The journal editor sends the document (aka manuscript) to a reviewer who is an accomplished scientist in the field.

The reviewer examines the work of the original researchers to assess if their claims are valid and whether there are errors and omissions in their approach and conveys their opinion to the editor on whether to accept or reject the manuscript.

In many cases, the reviewer may raise queries or recommend changes that are then communicated to the original researchers. A manuscript could go through a few iterations before being accepted for publication.

Once the manuscript is published, it represents a fresh addition to the body of scientific knowledge, until new evidence that negates the findings of this research emerges.

(The author is a freelance science journalist)

Published 24 July 2021, 04:24 IST

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