Ethicists are becoming alarmed at the explosive increase in scientific fraud cases – and those are just the ones that were caught.

Fraud on the Rise

It’s a truism that scientific research requires honesty (as with any intellectual endeavor).  For some reason, fraud cases have increased dramatically.  Is it due to better detection and reporting, or to a disturbing trend that no longer values honesty in academia?  Some recent articles weigh in on the problem.

In Nature News Oct 1, an article headlined, “Misconduct is the main cause of life-sciences retractions.”  That’s misconduct in contrast to slipshod error, as Zoe Corbyn expressed:

Conventional wisdom says that most retractions of papers in scientific journals are triggered by unintentional errors. Not so, according to one of the largest-ever studies of retractions. A survey published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found that two-thirds of retracted life-sciences papers were stricken from the scientific record because of misconduct such as fraud or suspected fraud — and that journals sometimes soft-pedal the reason.

Results of the survey were published in PNAS (Fang, Steen and Casadevall, “Misconduct accounts for the majority of retracted scientific publications,” PNAS October 1, 2012, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1212247109).  Of the 2,047 retracted papers surveyed, 43% were fraud cases and 24% were due to either duplicate publication or plagiarism.  And this was from leading journals, including Nature, Science, and PNAS itself.  Only a fifth, Science Insider said, were due to mistakes.  Science Magazine (Random Sample, Oct 5) noted that while plagiarism predominated in China, fraud predominated in the United States.  New Scientist said these numbers were “higher than thought.”  The Scientist speculated about the reasons:

The disproportionate number of fraud-related retractions from high-IF journals likely reflects the pressures on scientists to publish impressive data in prestigious journals. “There’s greater reward,” said Resnik, “and more temptation to bend the rules.”

But lots of people work under stress without bending the rules, and temptations hit everyone.  Scientists are supposed to be models of integrity, aren’t they?  Whatever the reason, research misconduct is not a victimless crime.  One of the ethicists conducting the survey wanted to “dispel any notion that scientific misconduct may be a crime that only affects the perpetrators.”  Scientists often publish on issues society really cares about….

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