A data falsification scandal in publicly funded research, which has rocked three Singapore institutions, provides another wake-up call to the academic community to guard against the abuse of the trust placed in scholarship. The misdeeds of the fraudulent scientists included work that had been seen as a breakthrough in the fight against killers such as obesity and diabetes. Action taken against the researchers has resulted in two of them having left their posts, the other having had his PhD revoked, and the retraction of six of their papers. The layman would ask if this is sufficient as deliberate acts by scientists to deceive others can have extremely harmful effects, leading to death in extreme cases.
Disgraceful academic charlatans have arisen everywhere, even in top American universities like Columbia and Duke. A British Medical Journal survey indicated that one in eight British scientists has encountered research fraud. All the more, Singapore institutions must be vigilant in ensuring that fraud is exposed relentlessly when it cannot be prevented.
Unfortunately, prevention is more difficult than cure. It would be too much for university management to supervise research so closely that any malpractices would be discovered immediately. Scientific research takes place best in the trusted company of peers who are united by a collegiate belief in empirical and methodological integrity. This unspoken arrangement works most of the time. Otherwise, the whole edifice of research would collapse under the pressure of dishonesty and mediocrity. However, there will always be rogue researchers who will abuse the trust placed in them precisely because it is so great. What nets them are whistle-blowers who raise the alarm, other researchers who cannot replicate their results and research integrity officers investigating leads. As with plagiarism, a deterrent to dishonesty in research is the likelihood of it being discovered. Whether this is sufficient to keep researchers on their toes is more worthy of discussion than arguments that some people try to beat the system because of its highly competitive "publish-or-perish" culture. Other researchers are also subject to similar demands and most do not seek the easy way out.
Singapore legislation does not deal explicitly with scientific fraud except with regard to ethical misconduct in human biomedical research. In Italy, a gastroenterology researcher has been indicted for scientific fraud and embezzlement. In a case of an American professor, criminal charges related to the misuse of research grants. It is worth exploring if what is considered fraud in commerce and finance should be extended to science. Whatever deterrents are emplaced, research institutions must demonstrate commitment to safeguarding the integrity of their work.