Scientific Fraud: Same As It Ever Was

From our far-flung network of correspondents, we come across this NYT Magazine article about scientific fraud. While the whole article is worth a read, a couple sections are noteworthy:

But while the system rewards priority of discovery, it penalizes with equal severity any effort to claim priority by means of fakery, since the rewarding of fraudulent discoveries would undermine the entire knowledge-sharing structure. Until recently, this has worked admirably: Deliberate fraud has been extremely rare.

In recent years, however, a series of important cases of scientific fraud has caused concern that there is an ominous weakening of the norm of scientific truthfulness….

The significance of these and other such incidents lies less in their frequency, however, than in the shock and alarm they have engendered in the public and in the scientific community. Science administrators, testifying on scientific fraud this past spring before the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight…of the House Committee on Science and Technology, said they doubted there was any major increase in such deviant behavior. What had increased, they agreed, was the public awareness of, and attention being paid to, such episodes.

This greater awareness and interest, however, strongly suggest a growing distrust of science and scientists by the public and the Congress, and such distrust could have grave consequences for a society as dependent on science as ours. Equally grave might be the consequences for science itself of endemic doubt and suspicion within its ranks, since mutual trust is essential to the system; where episodes of overt fraud have come to light, there seems to be, as I have heard from a number of scientists, a subtle but unmistakable loss of faith.

Nothing new for those who follow this sort of thing. Here are the explanations for fraud offered (boldface mine):

Those who are concerned about scientific fraud have offered a number of disparate conjectures to account for it. Perhaps the most common is that it is due to individual psychopathology…. “The rational individual – and I stress rational individual – knows that the deliberate falsification of data to fit a given hypothesis will inevitably, sooner or later, be found out by others…”

Other observers argue that psychopathology only makes fraud possible, not inevitable; other forces must conspire to induce such strongly deviant behavior. As Robert H. Ebert, former dean of the Harvard Medical School, has said, “It would be a mistake to consider [fraud] an example of human frailty and nothing more.” He pointed, instead, to the spirit of fierce competition fostered these days by medical schools and academic research centers for grant money with which to support their laboratories. Such competition has been intensified recently, it is often said, by the “grant squeeze.” Inflation and cutbacks are threatening to end many programs, thereby increasing the pressure on scientists to make up impressive data for their papers and grant proposals.

But perhaps psychopathology and competition both play a part, within a changing milieu in which there is more room than formerly for fraud to get by, at least for a while. The flood of scientific articles has become so great that the peer-review system is faltering; according to one speaker at a recent meeting of the Council of Biology Editors in Boston: “It is now very expensive and very difficult to assure the quality of publication. An author who manufactures data or who plagiarizes another paper or a grant application is not likely to be detected.”

Moreover, as advanced research becomes ever more complex, it is increasingly often conducted by teams of specialists from different disciplines; much of the time, each contributes work the others take on faith. Senior authors, in particular, often join their names to papers reporting work they have directed without understanding the details of what their junior colleagues have done. The opportunity for fraud is increased by this practice – as is the risk of seeming to be a party to fraud when one is guilty only of the lust for publication.

Probably not news to many scientists either.

Except this article was written in 1981. Thirty-two years ago.

Just providing some context.

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3 Responses to Scientific Fraud: Same As It Ever Was

  1. jonolan says:

    I think that, in these times, much of the scientific fraud is due to scientists deciding that, in certain cases, the ends justify the means. They lie “for the best of reasons” …and, given that the peer revue process was one of the first to fall to this behavior, they also have material reasons for committing such fraud or abetting it through not vetting the base data they were provided.

  2. coloncancercommunity says:

    I was too young at the time, but wasn’t 1981 a time somewhat analogous to our current situation? There was stagflation, budgets were being squeezed and this probably led to the “grant squeeze” sighted in the text. The fiscal issue was probably not as extreme as it is today. It certainly was of shorter duration. But the fact that this was written during that particular period of time might indicate that there is a “sweet spot” between competitiveness and brutal slash and burn destructiveness that drives the best innovation sans the fraud. Perhaps we should try to find that “zone of productivity” and attempt to manage the system so that it stays in that sweet spot.

  3. Pingback: Friday links: rejected classic papers, great interview with Peter Kareiva, crowdfunding=bake sale, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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