Many Scientists Admit to Misconduct
Few scientists fabricate results from scratch or flatly plagiarize the work of others, but a surprising number engage in troubling degrees of fact-bending or deceit, according to the first large-scale survey of scientific misbehavior. More than 5 percent of scientists answering a confidential questionnaire admitted to having tossed out data because the information contradicted their previous research or said they had circumvented some human research protections. Ten percent admitted they had inappropriately included their names or those of others as authors on published research reports. And more than 15 percent admitted they had changed a study’s design or results to satisfy a sponsor, or ignored observations because they had a “gut feeling” they were inaccurate.
None of those failings qualifies as outright scientific misconduct under the strict definition used by federal regulators. But they could take at least as large a toll on science as the rare, high-profile cases of clear-cut falsification, said Brian Martinson, an investigator with the HealthPartners Research Foundation in Minneapolis, who led the study appearing in today’s issue of the journal Nature. “The fraud cases are explosive and can be very damaging to public trust,” Martinson said. “But these other kinds of things can be more corrosive to science, especially since they’re so common.”
The new survey also hints that much scientific misconduct is the result of frustrations and injustices built into the modern system of scientific rewards. The findings could have profound implications for efforts to reduce misconduct — demanding more focus on fixing systemic problems and less on identifying and weeding out individual “bad apple” scientists. “Science has changed a lot in terms of its competitiveness, the level of funding and the commercial pressures on scientists,” Martinson said. “We’ve turned science into a big business but failed to note that some of the rules of science don’t fit well with that model.”
None of this is particularly surprising, I guess–scientists are just people, after all–but it’s both disappointing and scary.