Wednesday, January 13, 2016

From Enron to Nature: How money clouds our moral code around cheating

Dan Ariely mentioned - albeit briefly - Enron in his discussion of our "buggy moral code"( I was only eight at the time that Enron began to fall, so I was completely unaware of what was going on in the stock market and the US economy ( Nevertheless, I have heard the company name thrown around, usually followed by the word “scandal”, and so when Ariely mentioned it, I took the liberty to look up the Enron scandal and figure out exactly what happened. The higher-ups and the book-keepers were essentially playing a game of hide-and-seek with the company’s assets. From what little I know of Enron, it seems to be entirely driven by money and the desire to keep up appearances. In this case, I mean the appearance of being a consistently successful company.

In terms of science, then, this begs the question: is all that we do, all our desire to publish, just simply to get (and keep) funding? As a young scientist, not yet jaded by the stresses of grant writing and the like, I know that this is not what science is about. Yet, many of the papers that are retracted are blamed to a fault by the “publish or perish” mentality ( ). Science is supposed to be a community, much like the economy is supposed to be a community, but the difference lies in that science is self-policing and structured around peer review. On the contrary, the economy has external regulation. The difficulty for external regulation in science is that people without a vested interest do not understand the data and cannot review it critically. So we come to the same issue of how to give scientists more security in their funding so that they are freed to do good research, research that is reproducible, and research that can be a diving board for future discoveries. As Jared Horvath (in the above cited blog) said, scientific reputation needs to be put aside in order to make the scientific community more honest. But without forcing authors to swear on a bible or recall the Ten Commandments before publishing, as Ariely did, how can we discourage cheating and remove the temptation when there is so much money at stake?

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