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Medicine Science

How Common Is Scientific Misconduct? 253

Hugh Pickens writes "The image of scientists as objective seekers of truth is periodically jeopardized by the discovery of a major scientific fraud. Recent scandals like Hwang Woo-Suk's fake stem-cell lines or Jan Hendrik Schön's duplicated graphs showed how easy it can be for a scientist to publish fabricated data in the most prestigious journals. Daniele Fanelli has an interesting paper on PLoS ONE where she performs a meta-analysis synthesizing previous surveys to determine the frequency with which scientists fabricate and falsify data, or commit other forms of scientific misconduct. A pooled, weighted average of 1.97% of scientists admitted to having fabricated, falsified or modified data or results at least once — a serious form of misconduct by any standard — and up to 33.7% admitted other questionable research practices. In surveys asking about the behavior of colleagues, admission rates were 14.12% for falsification, and up to 72% for other questionable research practices. Misconduct was reported more frequently by medical/pharmacological researchers than others. 'Considering that these surveys ask sensitive questions and have other limitations, it appears likely that this is a conservative estimate of the true prevalence of scientific misconduct,' writes Fanelli. 'It is likely that, if on average 2% of scientists admit to have falsified research at least once and up to 34% admit other questionable research practices, the actual frequencies of misconduct could be higher than this.'"
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How Common Is Scientific Misconduct?

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  • peer review (Score:3, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 30, 2009 @12:22PM (#28150025)

    Can we please put a stop to all these people citing peer review as a sort of wonder cure?

    I peer review a lot of papers. And yes, it catches a lot of bad science. But most of that is just, bad experimental design, bad writing skills, wrong conclusions, uninteresting stuff, etc.

    There is nothing I can do against some smart guy who makes up all the numbers, but knows enough of statistics to make it look plausible. It is often not feasible, or even impossible to redo the experiments. I never heard anybody do that anyway (maybe because you get 2-3 weeks to do your review, whereas the work would take half a year at least).

  • Re:Yeah... (Score:3, Informative)

    by icebike ( 68054 ) on Saturday May 30, 2009 @12:23PM (#28150029)

    Meta Analysis does that.

    There are more than a few incidents of Meta Analysis including the same data set from multiple places simply because it was shopped around for publication under different names.

    Meta Analysis combines vaguely related studies, using data sets of suspect quality, which you don't fully understand, which have already undergone filtering and editing you won't find out about, and which were collected under conditions you don't know, for motives you can't be sure of, by people you don't know, and can't possibly trust, which purport to measure issues only approximately related to the sibling studies with which they are homogenized.

    It amounts to rigorous analysis of a turd.

  • Re:It's quite common (Score:3, Informative)

    by ceoyoyo ( 59147 ) on Saturday May 30, 2009 @02:30PM (#28150939)

    You do the same thing with inclined ramp experiments in physics. The students know the relationship between the ramp angle and the speed the marble should be going, but they should get results that are pretty close but not quite right on because they haven't accounted for the rotational momentum of the marbles.

  • by elnyka ( 803306 ) on Saturday May 30, 2009 @05:43PM (#28152745) Homepage

    Fired? PhD students aren't employees, they're students.

    Most PhD students (specially those in sciences) do not rely exclusively in student loans to pay for classes and make ends meet. They have a department or research-center funded job that includes being a teaching assistant, or even a teacher for freshman courses as well as assist in (or even conduct) writing papers and experiments (sometimes on topics that are not directly relevant to his/her field of research.)

    You fuck it up (or you don't work well with whoever happens to supervise you), you lose your assistantship job. You lose that and bye-bye the dreams of getting the piece of goatskin that says "Doctor something something". Most people can't contemplate doing 5-7 (or even more) years of grad studies by student loans alone (or waiting tables), without the stipends, discounts, and most important of all, without the full-time paid immersion in teaching and research that comes with the Ph.D assistantship job.

    They might be students, but they aren't like freshmen or sophomores. They have a job related to their field and get paid to do work that helps them (hopefully) do the research they need to become doctors (this is specially true since most are required to be full-time Ph.D students in their last 1-3 years of study.)

    In today's legal climate, you have have to go through the academic misconduct process (usually some kind of quasi-judicial hearing & appeals) then expel them. Failing to follow procedure invites a fat lawsuit.

    Unfortunately academia sometimes work like a big fucking self-perpetuating mafia. It's only a very serious academic misconduct (borderline scandalous research fraud, sexual harassment or something to that nature) to get a misconduct process going.

  • by peter303 ( 12292 ) on Saturday May 30, 2009 @06:00PM (#28152879)
    With the cheating level of undergraduates rumored to be around half, I wonder have this declines to only two percent by the time you got your PhD? Two answers: (1) Science cheating is under-reported, or (2) scientists check each other results especially if they are important. I'm in computational physics where its fairly straight-forward to replicate another's results. Cheaters are discovered quickly. Other lab-based fields may not be as easy to get caught.
  • And I don't buy the limited lab time either. The basic lab sciences are always empty, you just go there out of class time.
    I'm from an EEE not a science background but I know that in my department first and second years are only allowed in the labs during thier official lab sessions. Third and fourth years are allowed in the general labs to do project work at other times but still don't have the access to equiment that would be needed to repeat thier lab experiments (most lab experiments are done with experiment specific equipement and/or in more specialist labs)

    So if you get bad results here in an undergrad lab and don't notice them until you come to writeup/analyse (which is not unlikely because a lot of the equipment is old and unreliable and three hours is often only barely enough to complete the experiment) your options are to speculate as to why things went wrong or fudge your results. The former is the honest thing to do but the latter will probablly get you better marks.

  • by winwar ( 114053 ) on Saturday May 30, 2009 @07:55PM (#28153881)

    "Have you got any idea how difficult it is to refute an experimental outcome, at least in the less exact sciences?"

    The inability to recreate the experiment is a basic method to refute the outcome.

    If you can't get their procedure and/or their procedure doesn't work then the outcome is very questionable...

  • by Gulthek ( 12570 ) on Saturday May 30, 2009 @11:19PM (#28155095) Homepage Journal

    I don't know where the GP was, but I can confirm that lab time (at least in the late 90s) was similarly limited for undergraduates at UNC-Chapel Hill.

  • Re:Just greedy. (Score:3, Informative)

    by Goldsmith ( 561202 ) on Sunday May 31, 2009 @12:13AM (#28155465)

    The problem is not money. The grandparent is justifiably frustrated, but hasn't thought things through all the way. Doubling scientist salaries would be nice for those of us who currently have jobs, but would end up making the economic problems of science worse.

    The problem is, we're producing 15 PhDs for each professor (on average, in physics) and there simply are not jobs for all those people. For every scientist who goes to those websites and can enter their salary for the research they're doing, there are 2 or 3 who are working in a job that does not require a PhD because they couldn't find anything else (and they're not going around bragging about it). So you waste 6 years working your ass off for very little little money. Often you extend this 4 to 6 more years as a postdoc before giving up and heading to some high school to teach. There is significant pressure, by the time you're in your mid-30s, to find your first "real" job and get onto that $70k track somehow... that's where the ethics problems come from.

    It's not that getting a PhD is a bad decision, but that we (scientists near the top of this chain) are misleading those at the bottom into trying to get a PhD. We need many, many people working for as little as possible to do all the experiments we need done to stay in front of our competitors. Failure means we can't pay our students and postdocs, which means they can't pay their rents, which gets ugly really fast. Without that army of graduate students, science doesn't happen in the US. Once we can't justify paying someone $20k/year to lead multi-million dollar projects, we fire (graduate) them. Makes no sense. We tell them this is all a great thing, and that every one of them is special and will go on to form many start-up companies and be fabulously wealthy. Instead, they head back home and get out of science. Oh, lots of them went into investing and banking. Yeah, it turns out it's not good to have bitter ex-scientists trying to game the markets with fake science.

    Bottom line. We need fewer scientists. Getting a PhD should be for those who really, really dream of being a professor. Research Master's and M.S./M.B.A. programs need to be more common. We need to actually give these students the tools they need to start companies, create jobs and (why not?) make cars. I agree, buy American.

    By the way, NEVER trust a professional organization, i.e. geology.com, to give an honest view of salaries in their field. They're in the business of recruiting new members (new students for the machine), not providing reliable information.

  • ichoosefreedom (Score:2, Informative)

    by ichoosefreedom ( 1566197 ) on Sunday May 31, 2009 @01:17AM (#28155769)
    It seems scientific misconduct is perfectly acceptable, in fact, condoned, when it comes to tobacco control. In PLoS Medicine, I attempted to get Stanton Glantz to declare his competing interests. He has received 1.5 million dollars in grants and UCSF has received 36 million dollars from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. There aren't many who don't know who the RJWF is but for those who do not, they were created by the founder of Johnson & Johnson. RWJF owns tens of millions of shares of J&J stock. Who sells the NRT products? J&J. In fact, RWJF paid, just through 2005, 446 million dollars in tobacco control grants. Some grants to ACS had Medicare pay for NRT. An RWJF national program director was involved in writing the federal guidelines that tells doctors they have to push the drugs, that the patient should NOT try to quit cold turkey. NRT has a 98.4% failure rate for quitting 1 year or longer. The former CEO of RWJF heads a 10 million dollar grant at UCSF, Center for Smoking Cessation Leadership Center (compliments of RWJF). Glantz and UCSF stand to gain a ton more grant money from RWJF and should have to declare competing interests. http://www.plosmedicine.org/annotation/getCommentary.action?target=info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.0050178 [plosmedicine.org] Then you have the University of Minnesota and Elizabeth Klein from Ohio State University passing a recent tobacco control study off. The abstract states that exemptions from smoking bans for standalone bars have been considered to ease the economic burden for bars...so she collects employment data for bars...AND RESTAURANTS. She figures nothing in for lack of compliance to the law (in Ohio, year 2 after the ban there were over 7,000 complaints and investigations-HIGH compliance?). She does not say how many businesses were bars. In Minnesota, bars are outnumbered by restaurants 3 to 1. ClearWay Minnesota paid for this study and in the grant prosal it states "We believe that this research will provide public health officials and tobacco control advocates with information that can help shape adoption and implementation of CIA policies, and prevent their repeal." and "The proposed study ⦠will contribute to MPAAT's (now ClearWay) overall mission by providing information that enables adoption and successful implementation of policies to protect employees and the general public from secondhand smoke exposure." Think this study has no bias or stated outcomes desired? IT'S IN THE GRANT PROPOSAL!! And her article proclaiming no harm to bars and restaurants has been published everywhere with TV and the radio picking it up. This study has so many holes in it that if it were the Titanic, it wouldn't have made it out of the harbor. So...we issued a press release. http://news.prnewswire.com/DisplayReleaseContent.aspx?ACCT=104&STORY=/www/story/05-29-2009/0005034690&EDATE [prnewswire.com] The problem is when "science" is bastardized to fit a social engineering scheme, science will never be trusted when it will need to be trusted. I'm disgusted with dung being passed off as valid. It has to stop.
  • by droptone ( 798379 ) <droptone.gmail@com> on Sunday May 31, 2009 @08:56AM (#28157561)
    Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine [jnrbm.com]. Personally, I'd prefer it in a simple website with a good database attached, especially for the social sciences where there are interesting negative results that may come as an afterthought (birth order effects, finger digit ratios before they became popular in the past ~10 years, etc in psychology); that may or may not be the case for other fields.

"To take a significant step forward, you must make a series of finite improvements." -- Donald J. Atwood, General Motors