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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.

  • Dec 21 2012: I don't know any exact answer to that question - yet I thnk the problem starts at school and university.

    Case in point - I enrolled in an honours physics course at university. What was attractive to this program was that it has been completely revamped - since enrolment in Physics had dwindled to zero the previous year.

    In one Physics lab, the assignment was to do the classical measurement of e/m. It was standard lab equipment. People worked in teams. The first team could not come up with the "correct answer" using that apparatus. The prof assigned a second team and they couldn't get the "right answer" either -although they did get the same measurement as the first team.

    The prof then assigned both teams the problem of "why were they getting the wrong answer?". The first team couldn't explain it, but cam up with an amusing rewrite of all of physics to explain the answer they got. The second team noticed the filament was held taut in the apparatus by a spring at both ends. The current would pass through these springs (coils actuallY) and create an electromagnetic field that would affext the answers. Estimating the size of the coils and calulating and subtracting the effect of the coils from the answer gave you a pretty good number - close to the right answer at least.

    Now the $100 question. Decades of students used this apparatus and ALWAYS were able to generate "the correct answer" - but the apparatus was incapable of doing so. Whats going on? Decades of student learned to get the mark, they had to present the "right answer", even if they had to fudge the results.

    So methinks this is a learned behaviour.
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    Dec 22 2012: There are scientists who work for multinationals like cigarettes makers and pharmaceutical companies that come up with all sorts of dodgy research results that would water down the dangers or side effects of their products.
    Because so many people would believe anything as long as it is from a scientist, many in the field have been used to strengthen arguements in support of questionable positions of politicians and economic interests.

    But it is not just about the fact that they are scientists, as they saw, "The devil makes the greatest gains by masquerading as an angel of light".
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    Dec 21 2012: If you research the word "retraction" as it applies to scientific papers you will get some relevant information. Of course retraction only comes into play when the falsehood/error/deception is discovered, so how many go undiscovered?
  • Dec 21 2012: "How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research?"

    It depends on the field: it's common in the social and medical fields (because of the uncertain nature of the research it's just easier to cheat or for things to go wrong), but less so in the natural sciences, though it does occur. You will most often find something erroneous in a journal, not so much in text books. Do note that in the social and medical sciences many "fabrications" are actually math errors that the authors themselves are not aware of and often there are also practical restrictions (small test groups for example) that the researchers are forced to work with.
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    Dec 21 2012: A lot of them regarding global warming.
  • Dec 24 2012: When scientists are for hire, there will be bias in the research. Unfortunately, someone has to pay the bills.
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    Dec 24 2012: Don't know , how many but it is there that's for sure....

    It's a matter of morality.

    Good thing about science is , being evidence based to great extent science itself has it's instinct ability to prove psudoscience or falsification to be false
  • Dec 22 2012: Scientist are no better than the next person when it comes to cheating. There is always someone who can be bought, else where do the creationist scientists come from?
    I have personally seen examples of "cherry picking" evidence with under or non-reporting of outliers (I see this a lot in medical research)
    Any any result that shows the data supports the stated position or premise "too" well should be questioned.
    That is how science works is by peer review of results, re-done by a different group attempting to disprove the intiial paper. That is how scientists become famous is by proving something wrong.
    If a paper is not presented to a peer review journal for repudiation by other groups that it is not worth reading. period.
  • Dec 22 2012: The current evidence of research fraud may provide a serious under-estimate of the problem. We are assuming that once a research institute discovers that it is employing a fraudster, it will take corrective action.
    But fraud damages an institute’s reputation. So there is a strong temptation to bury fraud instead of exposing it.
    Detecting this institutional or “meta-fraud” is particularly difficult because of our wishful thinking that research institutes as collective bodies are honest. We must break out of this mindset in order to defend the integrity of science.
    An example of meta-fraud and the mindset that prevents its exposure is presented at
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      Dec 22 2012: Or is the reverse true- that it is an aspect of modern culture, at least in some places, for so many people to suspect/believe fraud is rampant among others, even when the actual evidence suggests the extent is very small?
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    Dec 22 2012: In any case, to many!
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    Dec 21 2012: .
    Fraudulent information by a small margin of scientists (for reasons I'm not entirely sure of) isn't too significant of a factor due to the falsification model that science is bound by.

    Claims must be substantiated, repeatable, correlative with other facts associated with it (if applicable) and must have detailed analysis of the step-by-step procedure done to reach the conclusion.
    This is why when select scientists do attempt to fabricate results, its eventually found to be so when the test/claim is repeated.

    Not to say that we should accept this type of behavior in any way/degree.
    Anyone found doing so should be fired and have their credentials revoked immediately.
    But still, the point is that it isn't as problematic as it may seem.
    • Dec 21 2012: That depends on what you define as "problematic". When the majority of recent graduates say that they would alter, falsify or omit data if meant getting a paper published or a grant approved, I define that as "problematic".
  • Dec 21 2012: With money involved, directly or indirectly,
    more than you would like to know.
    Even though you would like to know.
  • Dec 21 2012: I hope it is not as bad as you believe.
  • Dec 21 2012: I hope it is not as bad as you believe.
  • 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]."