Faking scientific data and failing to report commercial conflicts of interest are far more prevalent than previously thought, a study suggests.
One in seven scientists says that they are aware of colleagues having seriously breached acceptable conduct by inventing results. And around 46 per cent say that they have observed fellow scientists engage in “questionable practices”, such as presenting data selectively or changing the conclusions of a study in response to pressure from a funding source.
However, when scientists were asked about their own behaviour only 2 per cent admitted to having faked results.
Daniele Fanelli, of the University of Edinburgh, who carried out the investigation, believes that high-profile cases such as that of Hwang Woo-Suk, the South Korean scientist disgraced for fabricating human stem cell data, are less unusual than is generally assumed. “Increasing evidence suggests that known frauds are just the tip of the iceberg and that many cases are never discovered,” he said.
The findings, published in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS One, are based on a review of 21 scientific misconduct surveys carried out between 1986 and 2005. The results paint a picture of a profession in which dishonesty and misrepresentation are widespread.
In all the surveys people were asked about both their own research practices and those of colleagues. Misconduct was divided into two categories: fabrication, the actual invention of data; and lesser breaches that went under the heading “questionable practices”. These included dropping data points based on a “gut feeling” and failing to publish data that contradict one’s previous research.
The discrepancy between the number of scientists owning up to misconduct and those having been observed by colleagues is likely to be in part due to fears over anonymity, Dr Fanelli suggests. “Anyone who has ever falsified research is probably unwilling to reveal it despite all guarantees of anonymity.”
The study predicts that the 2 per cent figure, although higher than most previous estimates, is still likely to be conservative.
Another explanation for the differences between the self-report results and colleague-report results could be that people consider themselves to be more moral than others. In a marginal case, people might characterise their colleagues’ behaviour as misconduct more readily than they would their own.
The study included scientists from a range of disciplines. Misconduct was far more frequently admitted by medical or pharmacological researchers than others, supporting fears that the field of medical research is being biased by commercial interests.