Studies find that research fraud is the least of the science community's problems.

When you think about research misconduct in the sciences, the first incidents that come to mind are fairly dramatic: maybe Hwang Woo-suk and his fabricated stem-cell data, or the fraudulent “discoveries” of Bell Labs physicist Jan Hendrik Schön. But, a team of sociologists say the real problem is low-level misbehavior that is far more prevalent and harmful than anyone realizes.

University of Michigan professor Raymond de Vries, who assisted principal investigator Brian Martinson of the Health Partners Research Foundation on this study, said the unjust behavior is probably due to adverse work conditions rather than the mischief of any individual “bad apple” scientists.

“We don’t mean to say there aren’t bad apples; clearly, there are bad apples,” de Vries said. “But the bigger problem isn’t just that every once in a while someone comes along and is a cheat or a fraud. The problem is the way we organize science and distribute rewards.”

De Vries, Martinson and their colleagues sought to determine the influence of the competitive research environment on how scientists conduct their work. The team set up focus groups of scientists from across all disciplines at top research universities who were at different points along the career track, to discuss misbehaviors that occurred outside of the big three of research fraud: falsification, fabrication or plagiarism (often called FFP).

Among the results of the focus groups, published in the March 2006 issue of Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics, many scientists reported low-level incidents of common, non-flamboyant misconduct dubbed “normal misbehavior.” The term applies to gray-area actions like not fully crediting another researcher, mistreating a subordinate scientist or not fully obeying grant requirements. 

“We started to hear about these rather ordinary things that scientists are confronted with every day, where they have to make a judgment,” de Vries said. “‘Do I do X or do I do Y?’”

The Minnesota-based team also conducted a nationwide survey of 3,247 research scientists to determine if there were systemic causes for these misbehaviors. The results, published in the June 2005 issue of Nature, showed that scientists who feel unjustly treated at work are more likely to commit normal misbehaviors.

“Scientists feel that they are under pressure,” de Vries said. “When we asked them to talk about it on the survey, what we found is that if you feel like you’re being treated unfairly, you’re more likely to engage in these misbehaviors.”

He blamed the high levels of competition and stress in part on the leveling off of NIH funding after a boom period in the ‘90s. The barrage of funding led to wider training of postdocs, many of whom are now full scientists looking to start their own lab and finding scarce rewards.

Nicholas Steneck, a historian at the University of Michigan who focuses on research ethics—and a consultant to the governmental Office of Research Integrity, which partially funded Martinson’s work—found the results of Martinson and de Vries’ study unsurprising.

“I’ve been tracking rates and prevalence for a long time, and there is other evidence that suggests that Martinson is not out of line with what other researchers are finding,” he said.

He added that the recent findings, while disheartening on the surface, may actually encourage institutions to take action and improve research conditions.

“If we’re dealing just with bad apples, there probably isn’t anything you can do to prevent misconduct,” he said. “But if there are environmental factors that impact, particularly, younger researchers coming along, then there are things that we can do.”

Originally published April 12, 2006

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