I read with interest (and, I admit, some amusement) Howard L.’s article, “Confessions of a Lab Rat,” in the June 25 issue. However, as a former scientist who used to conduct studies very similar to that in which Mr. L. participated, I feel compelled to make clear to him and to the public why his misrepresentation of himself to the study recruiter was both unethical and dangerous, both to himself and to the greater scientific enterprise.
Human medical research relies heavily upon the good intentions and honesty of volunteers, who put themselves at some risk in return for monetary compensation and the knowledge that they have made a contribution to medicine. However, misrepresentation by a volunteer of his or her medical, drug, psychological, or behavioral history in order to be accepted into a study amounts to scientific fraud and undermines the whole process. If it isn’t already illegal, it ought to be. (Perhaps this is why Mr. L. lacks a full last name.)
Despite the fact that some people (like Mr. L.’s friend) try to make a living as “professional research subjects,” being a research volunteer is not, and should not be viewed as, merely a “temp job”–it is much more than that. No matter how silly or nonsensical a study might appear from the volunteer’s point of view, there is usually much at stake: the career and reputation of the scientists and institution involved, the money spent on the research, most of which comes from the federal government (i.e. the taxpayer), and ultimately (and most importantly) the knowledge to be gained from the research in order to benefit patients with real disorders. Mr. L. may not have realized that in the type of “small n” research study in which he participated (i.e. research using a small number of subjects), a single subject misclassified into the wrong group could completely invalidate the statistical outcome of the study, thus leading to misinterpretation of the results.
By misrepresenting his current drug use, Mr. L. also increased the chances of his having an adverse reaction to the drugs administered. Fortunately for both Mr. L. and the researchers, despite his misrepresentation he was not assigned to the wrong study group in this case. But in a different situation, such a lie could have led to serious medical consequences. Incidentally, lying to get into a research study often is self-defeating anyway; volunteers usually do not know what the recruiter really wants to hear (i.e. the actual acceptance criteria are frequently concealed from volunteers in order to minimize the chance of misrepresentation).
I hope Mr. L. and others will think more seriously about their responsibilities to themselves and to society the next time they volunteer to be “lab rats.” Their responsibilities to the research staff include being completely truthful before, during, and after the study, thoroughly reading the consent form, asking questions about anything they are unsure about, and carefully following all instructions and protocols.