The Hippocratic Oath is historically taken by doctors swearing to practice medicine ethically. There is no such oath that we scientists swear, but we are expected to perform research responsibly and to publish scientific truth. As we cannot know everyone within our area of interest, generally you become known through the quality of your papers. Therefore, from our very first publication, we will be judged on the ability to discuss previous research in comparison to our own, the quality of the data, the correct analysis of the data, and generally how believable the story is.
Anyone on the author list is indelibly associated with the work, and it is each person’s responsibility to ensure it is of the highest standards. Once you have published with someone, you are also associated with all their work, so it is in your best interest to ensure that individual has scientific integrity and does not perform shortcuts to publish quickly or commit fraud.
Ideally, we all endeavor to perform well thought out, controlled, repeated experiments without undue time or monetary pressures. However, due to grants, conference deadlines, or the worry of being “scooped” by competitors, experiments are usually performed reasonably quickly. We therefore have to believe, when we read papers, the contributors have done everything to the best of their ability and with enough repetition that the results are real. Unfortunately, there are some scientists who feel under so much pressure that their scientific integrity is lost.
I was once told that an experiment I had performed once on a human and a monkey cell line was sufficient data for a figure, that because humans and monkeys are so similar I could combine the result for n=2, and I could also mention that the trend was across species when I wrote the paper! Hopefully everyone reading this disagrees as strongly as I did. So what did I do? Did my scientific integrity allow me to give in to my superior and potentially publish something unrepeated?
The answer is that no, I did not bow to the pressure and attempted to educate the individual in question as to why it was wrong. I also could not do it as I am proud of my previous work, and would not potentially tarnish any of the reputations of my previous co-authors and mentors. What would you do in a similar situation? Could you say no?
Most of us believe that we would not give in to peer pressure before it actually happens. What if you are about to lose funding and a new publication would help your new grant submission? What if you are up for review and are worried that your current publications will not be enough to receive an extension or promotion? What if you are working in a foreign country with a visa, could saying no cause you to lose your job and have to leave the country? Hypothetically, all of us would say no immediately, but there are many situations where you may hesitate if it affects your job prospects or remaining where you currently are.
It is each individual’s responsibility to ensure we publish scientific truths, as others will undoubtedly repeat or use our work as a foundation to build further research projects. While it may give a small personal gain in the short term, it will probably cause you more harm in the end. It may even end the career you are trying so hard to establish or continue. Hopefully, you won’t be put in the position where you need to find out, but if you are, please remember this adage “you are what you publish.”
Should a time arise when scientists do swear oaths, here is my suggestion adapted from the Hippocratic Oath:
“I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:
I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.
I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed.
Above all, I must not play God.
I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings.
If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of research.”