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Blog

Is scientific fraud committed by only a few ‘bad apples’?

By Michael Banks

Everyone hears the big stories of fraud in science. Indeed, a feature in last month’s Physics World (May 2009 pp24–29) documented the rise and fall of Jan Hendrik Schön who published a number of papers in prestigious journals such as Nature and Science that have since been shown to include fabricated data.

But how common are the smaller cases of misconduct? It is not easy to get accurate data about how common misconduct is within the research community. One could, for example, look at the number of paper retractions in journals, but these only include cases that have been discovered, and possibly not all retractions are based on fraudulent work.

So who better to ask than the researchers themselves if they have ever fabricated of falsified data? Well, Daniele Fanelli from the University of Edinburgh in the UK has analysed over 20 surveys in which scientists were asked a number of questions about scientific misconduct including if they had ever made up data points or distorted their results.

Fanelli found that, on average, 2% of scientists admitted to fabricating, falsifying or have modified data at least once during their careers. While over a third of researchers said they have published papers with “questionable research practises” such as not including data in a publication that may counter their conclusions or dropping data points from analysis because they were deemed “inaccurate”.

Fanelli also analysed surveys that asked researchers about the practises of their colleagues. He found that 14% said they knew someone who had fabricated data, while a massive 72% said they knew someone who has published papers with “questionable research practises”.

As Fanelli points out, it is sometimes difficult to interpret what researchers may term as misconduct, “the fuzzy boundary between removing noise from results and biasing them towards a desired outcome might be unknowingly crossed by many researchers”.

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4 comments

  1. Ender

    I think such kind of misconduct is more frequent than one might like to believe. Several years ago I was the main author of a paper in which I found some questionable results, once it had been accepted for publication, except for some minor changes. Thus, I found it appropriate to stop the process while the data were properly validated. However, I had a significant row with one of my coauthors would have rather published the paper as it was, even suspecting it could be wrong.
    A quite different breach of the ethics code is the inclusion of coauthors that don’t do a significant share of the work, but just get a free ride.
    Part of the problem is the “publish or perish” system we live in, but the other is the lack of scientific honesty by some people, who can easily fall into this game.

  2. A FEW “BAD APPLES” CONTROL THE PURSE STRINGS OF SCIENCE
    My research on the origin of the solar system since 1960 has been interdisciplinary.
    At the Annual AGU meeting in Washington, DC in April of 1976, we became aware that closely related sections of planetary science, space science, physics, geology, chemistry and astrophysics had been compromised by a few “bad apples” in NAS, self-serving members of the National Academy of Sciences that review programs and budgets of federal research agencies for Congress – agencies like NASA, NSF, DOE, etc.
    Common forms of misconduct are ignoring or misrepresenting unwanted data, like the link of primordial He with excess Xe-136 at the birth of the solar system [See: "Strange xenon, extinct super-heavy elements, and the solar neutrino puzzle," Science 14 January 1977: 208-209 DOI: 10.1126/science.208-b ]
    With kind regards,
    Oliver K. Manuel
    http://myprofile.cos.com/manuelo09

  3. Robert Fuller

    Whenever any source has printed results, with near perfect numbers, and a adamant researcher against questioning or reproof, these end up being the exaggerations or entirely fraudulent reports. Whenever someone produces miraculous results, science has no belief system or honor code, and someone should always be there to give an important demand, “Prove it.”

  4. Gary Ansorge

    How unfortunate scientists are just as human as any perfidious politician or ranting creationist however, that’s why we(humans) had to invent the Scientific Method, the only way we know to validate our knowledge. If it ain’t replicable, it’s probably not true,,,

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