There has been a longstanding need for serious analysis of the genuine ethical problems of exploitation, corruption and abuse in science1. Unfortunately, the debate instead tends to be framed in terms of ‘fabrication, falsification and plagiarism’.

On the one hand, we have seen intense and minute public scrutiny of whether a few individuals may have presented false or misleading scientific information; and on the other, independent juries have confirmed that research has been stolen and that corruption has occurred at universities2,3. Most horrifying of all, Jason Altom, a promising graduate student, felt so pressured and trapped by academic “abuse” at Harvard that he took his life4.

So we have an elite society that exploits junior colleagues to the point of suicide, but we are choosing to discuss not what is fundamentally wrong with the system, but whether the system produces accurate information at all times.

Two important points about scientific ethics have not, to my knowledge, been discussed together. First, scientific falsification is both rare and severely punished. This is intrinsic to the nature of science: a falsification that has any meaningful implications will sooner or later be found out as its implications are examined. Likewise scientists are understandably fiercely protective of the perceived value of their product, so punishment for falsification is severe. Second, exploitation of junior scientists by their seniors has arguably become commonplace, but is rarely discouraged — on the contrary, scientists who exploit their juniors are richly rewarded.

There is considerable anecdotal evidence for these views. For example, a researcher at a large private university was reportedly berated and then struck in the face by her academic supervisor when, after working without pay for two years, she requested a salary. The senior professor in charge of the laboratory then fired the researcher in response to a court judgement against the supervisor5.

In another example, according to independent sources, senior professors at different universities routinely hire foreign postdocs who have to work indefinitely under conditions that they stipulate by refusing to write letters of recommendation.

And in a third example, the chairperson of a university department has been accused of changing the budgets on grants written by junior researchers to support himself rather than the grant authors. He then allegedly stopped their salaries without notice and demanded that the researchers ghost-write further grant proposals as the price for reinstatement.

The atmosphere that would permit a professor to think that such behaviour could be acceptable seems to be clear evidence that the system is badly broken. Nor are these incidents obscure. On the contrary, the first case was reported in campus and city newspapers, and the last was reported at the time to university officials at the highest level. No action was taken against any of the senior faculty members involved. In each case he remains in good official standing.

The strictures against open confrontation of offenders are also well known. A certain method of ending an academic career is to protest openly against mistreatment — however clear the evidence or egregious the offence.

Discussing, in this atmosphere, whether or not fabrication, falsification or plagiarism may occur seems to me like asking whether employees in a company accused of being a sweatshop pilfer thread or make shoddy clothes. It is time for scientists of merit to address the real issues of concern to the next generation of scientists.

Are incidents such as those I report common? Can responsible scientists take measures to protect students and junior researchers? These are the issues crying out for attention, not whether data has ever been pilfered or if research might be shoddy.