In recent years, a growing number of innovators has falsified or fabricated their ideas and their work in order to gain prestige and undeserved credibility. Furthermore, instead of this scandal being the work of a few innovators led astray, it seems that the issue of unethical behavior in research is a frustratingly common occurrence. Why has it become such a challenge to maintain ethical innovation, and what can we do to restore integrity?
While I’m frustrated by this trend, I’m not completely surprised by it. The pressure to produce world-changing results in science and other fields is intense, because research money is always tight, and growing tighter. That pressure sometimes makes people do things they never would have thought they would do, like tweaking – or completely falsifying – data in order to demonstrate a striking, original finding.
As I mentioned in a podcast, the popular perception of what is “original” is flawed – and the scientific method and innovation in general are almost always slow, frustrating processes of building on small past discoveries to eventually make bigger ones. This means that ethical innovation involves one of the hardest things to do in research and in life: admitting failure.
When innovators work tirelessly on a project or study that doesn't produce significant results, the weight of not succeeding can be crushing. However, to ensure that innovation is ethical, we have to accept this failure as an inherent part of the process and re-establish how failure serves as a guide to help us understand what isn't working but what might work in the future. No important innovation would be possible without thousands of incremental discoveries and just as many failures before it.
Measuring Ethical Innovation
Because most of the people funding research and innovation are not the ones doing the actual work on the ground, justifying all those failures for the sake of advancements that seem infinitesimally small can get quite difficult. So one of the first things we have to do is re-examine how both public and private institutions evaluate researchers and re-learn how to work with instead of against the true measure of ethical innovation: the scientific method.
Unfortunately, improving the state of research, like the scientific method, will be a slow and frustrating process – we need a paradigm shift that empowers innovators to take risks even when failure is likely, and that won’t happen overnight. Innovators must band together to make our voices heard, and develop support systems and networks to hold each other accountable to high ethical standards in our work.
Restore Scientific Integrity
Finally, we must take responsibility for the massive amount of damage caused by a lack of scientific credibility. Unethical innovation not only causes scientific research to regress, it is also a disservice to the people scientific research is trying to help. If we want to restore scientific integrity and reaffirm our desire to help others through scientific discovery, we have to start speaking up against unethical behavior in research, accepting that science doesn't always have to produce results, and watching carefully for the Pinocchios with PhDs.