Insufficient data

Development of wise policies for prevention, investigation, and resolution of scientific misconduct cases continues to be hampered by insufficient data about the motivations, demographics, and extent of fraud. As the Editor of Science, Donald Kennedy, wrote following an episode involving his journal: "We need to know more about what motivates scientific misconduct and what can prevent against it," and especially what "disincentives" might prove effective in preventing it.59

What we don't know far outweighs what we do know.60 One of the persistent questions of the 1980s was, "How much misconduct is there?"

Through 1999, the Office of Research Integrity was issuing a finding of misconduct in about one-third of the cases investigated, but this number (still only several hundred since the 1980s) reflects only those cases that had wound their way through various departmental and institutional reviews. After examining much of the available government statistics on misconduct cases, Edward Hackett has concluded that, "It is difficult to know if there is much or little misconduct in science, if the rate has risen or remained constant, or if variation in the number of reported cases indicates changes" in any of the relevant parameters.61 It is safe to say, then, that whilst misconduct appears to be an aberration, and by no means reflective of an eroded integrity of science overall, the answer to the question asked in almost every forum on the topic since the 1980s remains unanswerable.

Information about who commits misconduct is equally sketchy. Most of the wrongdoers have been bright, accomplished scientists, who have engaged sometimes in honest and, other times, in dishonest research, that is, they have chosen to cheat. Many were rising rapidly in their careers, and had astonishing rates of production (but, then, so do many successful and honest scientists). No obvious link appears to exist between a predilection for unethical behaviour and any particular type of training or institutional employer, although the greater proportion of biomedical investigations in the US have, perhaps predictably, involved medical schools, where much of such government-funded research is conducted.57 Although initially there were far fewer women than men accused of research fraud, this "gender gap", too, has begun to close.57

In all instances, the accused person has wilfully sacrificed personal and professional integrity to a vision of "science (or fame) at any cost". Many younger fraudsters exploited lax supervision to advantage. Few seemed fearful that conventional oversight or peer review would detect their deception or, even if it did, that there would be serious recrimination. Perhaps those scientists who fake experiments are risktakers, regarding the process as a game, as a way to outwit their peers, much like the art forger who believed that "only the experts are worth fooling, and the greater the expert, the greater the satisfaction of deceiving him."62 As psychologists and sociologists explore such issues, we may eventually know the truth about "who" and "why" as well as how to deter problems in the future.

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