Scientific Fraud: An Incident or a Custom?

caravaggio_cardsharpsIn 1976 New Scientist asked their readers, what do they know about scientific fraud or if they suspect someone of intentional manipulations.[1] The journal received 204 questionnaires, and among those who answered, 92% admitted that they know directly or indirectly about a scientific fraud.[2] It is possible that people who decided to send their answers were motivated to do so, because they witnessed unethical behavior? Perhaps, but it might be also worth to take a look at another research conducted with more attention to scientific methodology on scientists at various stages of their academic career in the USA. The results are shocking. About 33% among thousands of anonymous respondents admitted to personally breaching at least one out of ten listed examples of scientific misconduct.[3]

The Project on Professional Values and Ethical Issues in Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers surveyed 2.000 doctoral candidates and 2.000 professors who were awarded federal grants. Among them, 6% of doctoral students and 9% of faculty members reported that “they have direct knowledge of faculty members involved in data falsification or plagiarizing.”[4] Additionally, 7.4% of principal investigators funded by NIH also reported that they witnessed at least one case of scientific misconduct during last three years. Moreover, these investigators also reported that 36% of misconducts they observed were never reported.[5]

The data obtained in this way are still far from being methodologically unquestionable, but they draw a terrifying picture. During my search for more credible research, I have came across probably the only metaanalysis ever published conducted by Daniele Fanelli. The author had found 69 research papers devoted to investigating honesty among scientists. He included twenty-one of those papers in systematic review of the research and 18 of them met the final inclusion criteria for metaanalysis. The results, unfortunately, complete the picture sketched during our analysis of previous studies. Two percent of all examined scientists admitted to the heaviest offence against scientific truth – to fabricating data, 14% claimed that they have personally witnessed such practices among other members of scientific community, 34% admitted to other serious misconducts and 72% said that they had personal eveidence of such behavior is their colleagues, suggesting that this is underreported.[6]

Research conducted by Lesli K. John et al. are even more credible. They have examined 2155 research psychologists published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, using method known as Bayesian-truth-serum.[7] This method employs a scoring algorithm to provide incentives for truth telling. This algorithm uses respondents’ answers about their own behavior and their estimates of the sample distribution of answers as inputs in a truth-rewarding scoring formula. Similarly, as in previously mentioned metaanalysis, 7% of subjects admitted to fabricating data results and 66,5% admitted committing other serious misconducts.[8]

When World Health Organization announced pandemic of swine flu in 2009 (H1N1), the reported CFR (case/fatality ratio) turned out to be 0.03%. What results do we need to present to announce epidemic in our discipline and generally in science? Aren’t the results presented about enough to talk about pandemic problem?

Behind the numbers we can usually find people with their names, faces, emotions and motives. Therefore in next posts I will present several stories about scientific fraudsters.


[1] James-Roberts, I. St. (1976). Are researchers trustworthy? New Scientist, 71, pp. 481-483.

[2] James-Roberts, I. St. (1976). Cheating in science. New Scientist. 72, 466-469.

[3] Scientists behaving badly. Nature, 435, 9 June 2005.

[4] Altman,E. (1997). Scientific and research misconduct. In E. Altman & P. Hernon (Eds.) Research misconduct: Issues, implications, and strategies (pp. 1-32). Greenwich, CT: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

[5] Wells, J.A. (2008). Final report: Observing and reporting suspected misconduct in biomedical research. Rockville, MD: The Office of Research Integrity.

[6] Fanelli, W. (2009). How many scientists fabricate and falsify research? A systematic review and meta-analysis of survey data. PLoS One, 4 (#5), 1-11.

[7] Prelec, D. (2004). A Byesian truth serum for subjective data. Nature, 470, 437.

[8] John, L. K., Loewestein, G., & Prelec, D. (2011). Measuring the prevalence of questionable research practices with incentives for truth telling. Psychological Science, 25(5), 524-532.


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