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How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research?

Is science misconduct an aberration or a common practice? Unintentional corruption of the factual record is commonplace, not so much as a deliberate attempt to engage in fraud but simply because that is accepted practice and procedure in a discipline.

In geology it is common practice to present the best or clearest example of a particular rock type, beddding characteristics, expression of faults and folds, etc. You don't present the average photographs or "the train wrecks" you present the best examples of your field work. Is this fraud? Not if you are a geologist, but some other scientists working in other disciplines not familiar with practice and procedure in your discipline.might brand that as fraud.

Here is some sobering data when it comes to what we expect in the coming years in science:

How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Survey Data

Daniele Fanelli

"To standardize outcomes, the number of respondents who recalled at least one incident of misconduct was calculated for each question, and the analysis was limited to behaviours that distort scientific knowledge: fabrication, falsification, “cooking” of data, etc.

A pooled weighted average of 1.97% (N = 7, 95%CI: 0.86–4.45) of scientists admitted to have 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 behaviour of colleagues, admission rates were 14.12% (N = 12, 95% CI: 9.91–19.72) for falsification, and up to 72% for other questionable research practices. Meta-regression showed that self reports surveys, surveys using the words “falsification” or “fabrication” “fabrication”, and mailed surveys yielded lower percentages of misconduct. When these factors were controlled for, misconduct was reported more frequently by medical/pharmacological researchers than others.


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  • Dec 21 2012: Nature | News
    Misconduct is the main cause of life-sciences retractions

    "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 survey1 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.The analysis revealed that fraud or suspected fraud was responsible for 43% of the retractions. Other types of misconduct — duplicate publication and plagiarism — accounted for 14% and 10% of retractions, respectively. Only 21% of the papers were retracted because of error"

    For some reason the life sciences are rife with fraud. Does this have anything to do with the fact that living systems are the most complicated in the physical world so causality for disease or other aspects of living systems is too complicated to map or measure accurately? What does this say about all the inevitable bad science, as indicated here, that will impede the progress in cancer, heart disease, diabetes research when so much bad science is published? Obviously, the retracted papers are only part of the problem; think of all the bad data that gets included in the published articles.

    Perhaps the edict should be, "Publish, perish, plagiarize, engage in fraud or engage in polemics or else you will fail as a scientist."
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      Dec 21 2012: What percentage of life science papers are retracted? 66% of a very small number is a very small number, and suspected fraud may not, in fact, be fraud.

      I think people for some reason love to believe that science is much more fraught with fraud than it is. This may be a competitive instinct to bring accomplished people a notch down.

      In the study reported, modification of data could refer to omitting an obvious coding error. I am not surprised that the numbers come way down when you ask about falisification or fabrication of data.
      • Dec 21 2012: Hi Fritzie,

        Here is the part of the Nature article most applicable to your question:

        "The latest study shows a ten-fold increase (to about 0.01%) in the proportion of papers retracted owing to fraud since 1975. Previous analyses have seen a growing trend in retractions in general5, but the latest report sheds new light on the extent to which fraud is responsible. It also found a correlation between journal impact factor and the number of fraud-induced retractions, says Ferric Fang, a microbiologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, who led the study.

        Influential journals, including Science, Nature, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and Cell, all appear in the top-ten list of publications with retractions because of fraud or suspected fraud (see ‘Top ten retractors’). For some journals, including the two topping the table — The Journal of Biological Chemistry and Anesthesia & Analgesia — the tally was boosted by multiple retractions from the same few individuals, such as anaesthesiologist Joachim Boldt, formerly of the Ludwigshafen Clinical Center in Germany. Indeed, Fang and his colleagues found that 38 research groups with five or more retractions accounted for 44% of articles linked to fraud or suspected fraud."
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          Dec 21 2012: Thanks. Here is another part of that report: In 2007 there were 96 papers retracted out of 1, 000,000.

          This is 1 of 10,416 or .0096%.

          If of these 66% are retracted because of suspected fraud, that is 1 in 15,873, or .006%. Actual fraud will be lower.

          And, as you write, a large proportion of the potentially fraudulent results are multiple false or potentially false representations by the same people.

          That, along with what you cite that almost half the cases come from groups that submitted mutiple false papers, the numbers of scientists submitting fraudulent work are tiny compared to the amount of activity.
      • Dec 21 2012: What is far more alarming is the number of recent graduates most of whom would engage in unethical behavior if meant getting a grant approved or getting a paper published. Also from the initial article: "Finally, routine data audits conducted by the US Food and Drug Administration between 1977 and 1990 found deficiencies and flaws in 10–20% of studies, and led to 2% of clinical investigators being judged guilty of serious scientific misconduct [18]."

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