The Search for Truth

Nancy Brown
September 01, 2001

This year, for the first time in its history, Penn State revoked a Ph.D. As Eva Pell, Vice President for Research and Dean of the Graduate School, reported to the Faculty Senate, "Last fall it came to our attention that a Penn State Ph.D. recipient had fabricated data associated with her dissertation." The case was investigated, following the University's policy on research ethics. The researcher admitted to fabricating ten base pairs of a DNA sequence.

green and purple microscopic view of DNA

Ten base pairs of a sequence that might have been hundreds, thousands, millions, even billions of base pairs long (the species of DNA studied remains confidential). And yet those ten letters—some combination of A,T,G, and C—falsify all the conclusions drawn from that experiment.

The recent advances in genetics and genomics detailed in the special report in this issue raise new opportunities, new insights for research in medicine, agriculture, biology, ecology, human development, and all the life sciences. But some things remain the same. New tools do not change the act of research; new ways of knowing do not simplify the search for truth.

"I remember a seminar I attended as a graduate student," Pell said in her remarks at the opening convocation for new graduate students this fall. "A professor talked about insight as follows: He described pondering a complex problem. Once in a great while, he said, the door opens. For a brief moment, the light shines in, and then the door slams shut again.

"In my life as a researcher, I have enjoyed that rush of insight just a few times. It is totally exhilarating, providing momentum that can carry you for a long time, even after your pages turn two-dimensional again."

But, Pell added, no self-deception, no fudging or fabrication, will blow open that imaginary door in your pages of lab notes or calculations, musical notation or dialogue, Perl script or case studies, and let the truth shine.

At this moment," she said, "you cannot imagine that you might ever seek a short cut—falsify data, pour a chemical down the drain, neglect to report an isotope spill, or conduct an experiment with animals or human subjects for which you neglected to get a protocol approved. Today, I hope none of you could conceive of engaging in such behavior. Almost none of you ever will.

"But some of you will experience pressure: An adviser who needs data from your experiment for a proposal he or she is writing. A commitment you made to present a poster at a meeting months before—and now with two weeks left you simply don't have time to wait for the institutional review board to grant you permission. You don't want to let your adviser down. Or you have to finish up before your funding runs out. Or you have a job to go to and you just have to get that degree wrapped up. . . ."

At this point you need to think what the purpose of your work is, what the charge was that you laid on yourself when you became a researcher. Why should you follow the rules?

"The best reasons," said Pell, "are based upon respect for your research and for the objects of your research, and for love of the truth. We are entrusted with the care of people, of animals, and of our environment, and we must treat this responsibility with the utmost respect."

Last Updated September 01, 2001