If anyone needs a reminder of the damage that can be caused when research integrity is called into question — rightly or wrongly — take a look at the news coverage of N.C. State and UNC-Chapel Hill lately.
It’s hard to argue against the idea that any time the news media’s attention is drawn to research integrity questions, everyone involved loses. Accusations tend to stick in the public consciousness regardless of the outcome, especially in complex, drawn-out situations. Even when the process of correcting scientific errors plays out as it should — as may well be case now at State — it is at best a slow, painstaking process that doesn’t lend itself well to the appetite of the news media and the public for quick, clear resolutions.
The Art of War offers a lesson that applies especially to well to these situations: The highest virtue is not to win a battle, but rather to win without a battle. Avoiding a fight — in this case by conducting research in an unquestionably rigorous way and taking any questions about the results seriously rather than defensively– is even better than winning. That doesn’t mean you can necessarily avoid being dragged into the mud by someone with an agenda, but it’s your best defense.
The researchers in the N.C. State case had a chance to avoid going to war over their results but chose a stonewalling strategy that invited trouble even if they’re right. In Chapel Hill … what a mess. The researcher herself may or may not have produced valid results, but when she went to CNN, her own administration chose to go to the mattresses, questioning results they found problematic in a way that, so far, at least, has generated more heat than light.
Details and links follow the jump.