How Do We Protect Trust in Science? Lessons from Inquiry with Integrity

A crowded auditorium with panelists in discussion on stage (left to right) Elisabeth Bik, Holden Thorp, Ruth O'Hara, and Mildred Cho (moderator)

Photo by Christine Baker

As instances of plagiarism and academic misconduct have hit the headlines, the academy has to ask: How do we ensure public trust in science? The McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society and the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics “Inquiry with Integrity” panel took place against the backdrop of recent academic scandals to tackle this question. Panelists were clear that science needs a structural shift but what might this shift look like, and what solutions can we offer?

Research Quality Over Quantity

The first panelist to present, Elisabeth Bik, is an independent science integrity consultant who searches academic papers for errors and manipulation to report them to journals. She got her start when she found a paper that plagiarized her own work, leading her to leave her role as a researcher at Stanford School of Medicine to pursue academic integrity investigation full-time. In searching for errors in papers, Bik works like a detective carefully comparing images side-by-side to look for repeated patterns indicative of oversight, careless handling of data, or, worse, intentional manipulation. According to her blog, Science Integrity Digest, her work has led to over a thousand retractions as of November 2023.

Bik discussed common circumstances that lead to misconduct. She believes that there’s a low risk and a high reward for publishing flawed results that disincentivize academics from regarding data integrity. Because publishing requirements can be demanding, many researchers feel high pressure to deliver impactful results on a speedy turnaround. At this pace, researchers may deprioritize careful data handling or even turn to intentional manipulation. Once these erroneous results are published, consequences may be minimal. In Bik’s experience, scientific journals can be slow to print corrections or retractions and, in most cases, do not take action at all. “It definitely seems to be very profitable to cheat in science because the chances of getting caught or having any repercussions are very small, with some exceptions, ” said Bik. She proposed that academia change what it expects of researchers and that we focus on the quality of research and not the quantity. “But it takes the role of everybody involved in science to do that.”

Accountability and Transparency

Taking the stage next was Holden Thorp, editor-in-chief of Science journals and former chancellor of UNC Chapel Hill. The most important piece of integrity, he argued, is how we respond to mistakes. Presiding over the university’s response to its academic-athletic scandal, he learned that prompt accountability and transparency from the institution are absolutely essential, even though they may be an unfortunate rarity. Now, in his role as editor-in-chief of Science journals, he believes that the biggest obstacle to integrity is the stigma of correcting mistakes. Because there is such a high volume of academic work, errors are inevitable. Instead of focusing on punishing scientists who make mistakes, we need to encourage them to fix them. “We need to lower the stigma associated with correcting papers,” said Thorp, “correction is courageous." He believes that correcting papers quickly is key to protecting public trust in science and that getting bogged down in questions of blame only slows us down. “As long as we're talking about who contributed and who didn’t, we’re not solving it.”

Illustration of the Inquiry with Integrity panelists and moderator along with main takeaways; details in caption.
Live illustrated at the event by Callie Chappell; this graphic highlights the key takeaways from the discussion, including embedding ethical incentives, open peer review, transparency, and building a culture of rigor and reproducibility.

Rethinking “Good Science”

Ruth O’Hara, the final panelist, feels that "We need to build a culture that emphasizes rigor and reproducibility." O’Hara is the Senior Associate Dean of Research at Stanford School of Medicine. She, like Thorp, spoke about changing the culture of scientific inquiry. She proposed reorienting academic culture away from prestige and changing how we think about "good science." She argued that science needs to recognize more than just the flashiest work with the biggest impact and agreed with Bik that science ought to focus primarily on producing quality results rather than a large quantity of results. For O’Hara, quality work means work that is thorough and reproducible.

Ultimately, O’Hara believes that everyone in academia has a role in changing the culture. For example, one symptom of high pressure in academia is the tendency for faculty members to spread themselves too thin. Because there is such high pressure to deliver a large quantity of results, faculty members feel the need to take on more Ph.D. students and postdocs than they have time to oversee adequately. She believes that building a culture of rigor may mean scaling back the size of their labs so that they can be sufficiently involved in day-to-day operations. “That’s a thorny problem and one we have to address,” said O’Hara.

The Ethics and Society Review: One Way to Shift the Culture

As our panelists discussed, changing the culture of research is complicated. It requires individuals, institutions, and systems to change. And it requires intentionality and accountability throughout the research process. The McCoy Ethics Center’s Ethics and Society Review (ESR) project, developed in partnership with the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI), presents a promising model for reorienting the academy to prioritize ethics in research. In order to catch ethical issues at the earliest stage possible, the ESR prompts researchers to stop and consider the societal impacts of their projects from the outset. Evaluation of the ESR is ongoing, but preliminary results are promising – a majority of interviewed researchers said they would submit to the ESR again voluntarily. The ESR offers one way of bringing ethics and integrity to the forefront of the research process.

All told, panelists raised many important questions about how we can meet the ideals of scientific inquiry. Fundamentally, the goal of science is the pursuit of truth, but the practical problems of human error, pressure to deliver results, and aversion to correcting errors can prevent us from reaching that goal. There are still more questions than answers, but transparency, rigor, reproducibility, and open dialogue are solid ways to start working toward solutions.

To learn more about the challenges and potential solutions of research integrity, watch the full Inquiry with Integrity panel recording.


Ellie Jordan Vela is a Master’s student in computer science at Stanford University, studying how technology produces power and inequality. On the rare occasions when they’re not doing coursework or research with the Ethics in Society Review, you can find them spending time with their partner or working on their technique at the drum set.