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Scientists Must Only Seek Truth

By Eleanor P. Wiesler, Crimson Opinion Writer
Eleanor P. Wiesler ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, is an Applied Mathematics concentrator in Eliot House.

“Concern for man himself and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavors,” Albert Einstein professed to students at the California Institute of Technology in a 1931 speech. “Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations.”

Almost a century later, most scientists carry out research according to this standard — but some do, in fact, forget his warning.

Scientists have a unique power to unveil the deepest truths about our physical and natural world. They hold up mirrors to our societies and challenge the status quo of accepted thought. The profession holds immense beauty and influence, but also immense responsibility. In the world of academic research, the only goal should be to obtain truth — we should never let honesty fall second to the pursuit of personal gain.

A recent high-profile integrity case in scientific misconduct has struck a tension with this standard. Just over three weeks ago, The Crimson reported that neuroscientist and Stanford President Marc T. Tessier-Lavigne will be investigated by a team of top researchers in his field, including former Harvard provost Steven E. Hyman.

Tessier-Lavigne is accused of co-authoring papers with doctored images and figures spanning multiple years, including one in the journal Cell and two in Science. According to the Stanford Daily’s Nov. 2022 reporting, Stanford claimed that Tessier-Lavigne had attempted to correct any research misconduct after he was first informed of the accusations in 2015 and that the images did not affect the papers’ findings. However, some experts argue that the image manipulation of which Tessier-Lavigne is accused suggests intent to mislead readers — which, if true, would constitute a severe act of academic wrongdoing.

Researchers gain a lot with each successful publication, including increased funding and citations that boost their reputation and status. For honest research findings, such accolades are well-deserved; scientific research is a laborious and intensely challenging process. Rewarding notable scientific progress through publication and career advancement is crucial to advance knowledge. However, this system also creates significant institutional pressure on academics to produce consistent, impactful results.

As such, there exists a rare but exceedingly damaging type of academic who will falsify findings for personal gain during their career, putting self-interest over truth — at a high cost to the greater scientific community. If Tessier-Lavigne is found guilty of scientific misconduct, his current status as the president of a prestigious university and a renowned scholar could be partially attributed to obstructions of truth. Any mishandling of misconduct cases such as this could have immeasurable consequences, the most concerning being a jeopardization of public trust in science.

In a time where public skepticism of scientists is growing, it could not be more vital for every scientist to uphold integrity. This is especially true for high-profile scientists and researchers in positions of authority. In December 2021, only 29 percent of surveyed adults in the United States had a “great deal of confidence in medical scientists to act in the best interests of the public,” declining approximately 10 percentage points compared to the prior year — a trend seen across all scientists, not just those in medical research. Vaccine hesitancy and misinformation, climate change denialism, and pandemic skepticism are all examples of this trend, with serious consequences for public health and policy. Every researcher must prioritize public trust in science as a core foundation to their work; failures of integrity only further threaten public confidence.

Training in scientific integrity must be strengthened, both by teaching young scientists to maintain credible research practices and by training all researchers to identify and report scientific misconduct.

For the concerned reader, you should know that it is not easy for falsified data to make it to a published journal in the first place. Every published paper, including each paper co-authored by Tessier-Lavigne that is currently under fire, is peer-reviewed by experts, who may provide extensive feedback, requests for revision, or even full rejection.

However, it is still possible for some integrity cases to fall through the cracks, especially if the submitting authors are well-respected in their field. Artificial intelligence and machine learning have already been shown as having potential to assist peer review; these technologies could be further employed in practice to review data and flag potential figure manipulation during the review process.

Yet no matter what changes are made to the review process, it will always be the responsibility of publishing scientists to uphold truth and honesty in their work. To those of my peers who dream of chasing scientific discovery, remember that integrity should be valued above all else.

Even to those who do not envision a career in traditional scientific research, you too bear equal responsibility to work honestly. These principles are needed in everyday life, in every job you will ever hold, and in every sector of our society. Anyone who has the power to inform has the equal power to deceive. I ask that you wield your influence with the sole intention of illuminating the truths about our beautifully complex world, for a purpose greater than yourself alone.

Eleanor P. Wiesler ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, is an Applied Mathematics concentrator in Eliot House.

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