This is the second part in a series of posts exploring science as a method and process.
In this part, we explore fraud and misconduct in science and why it’s such a huge problem – not only within the science community.
In my more naive and romantic imagining of science, it is incorruptible and true.
It is the honest pursuit of knowledge by equally incorruptible and true scientists, whose integrity cannot ever be questioned.
However, science is run by people, and people are neither incorruptible nor infallible. People can and will accidentally (or maliciously) do something wrong; that’s the nature of humans and their endeavours. As unpleasant as that is, it would be foolish of us to think that science fraud and misconduct doesn’t exist.
Exactly how big is the problem?
This is actually really hard to say. In one systematic review, Fanelli (2009) found that 2% of scientists have fabricated, falsified or modified data or results, and that up to 34% of scientists admitted to having questionable research practices. Note, that these figures were gleaned from surveys, so the actual figures could vary quite significantly from what Fanelli found?
Why is Fraud and Misconduct Bad?
The quickest way to devalue trust is by lying and cheating. The same thing goes for trust in science. But there are other serious problems beyond eroding public confidence in science.
Science is an increasingly expensive business to be in. In fact, global investment in research and development amounts to trillions of dollars (Batelle & RD Mag 2013.) As such, fraud and misconduct is a very, very expensive waste of time and resources.
In one single 2014 case, the former researcher Dr. Dong Pyou Han was found guilty of deliberately making false statements in relation to falsifying research materials, data and results in a HIV study. As a result of the fraud, USD $7.2 million dollars was squandered.
In fact, Stern et al (2014) found that retracted research papers funded by the National Institute of Health costed the US $2,324,906,182. This figure is for health-related research alone.
Indeed, there is an overall recent upward trend in retractions of research paper, which is worrying. We are either seeing an increase in science fraud and misconduct, or we have gotten much better at catching mistakes (Van Noorden 2011). We can only hope that it is the latter.
It might be impossible to eliminate one hundred percent of science fraud and misconduct. That much is given. However, this problem is far from new.
But until we take a hard look at the actual scope of the problem, and take serious steps to discouraging it, science will remain under threat.
Battelle & RD Magazine 2013, ‘2014 global R&D funding forecast’, RD Mag, retrieved 13 April 2016, <http://www.battelle.org/docs/tpp/2014_global_rd_funding_forecast.pdf?sfvrsn=4>
Fanelli, D 2009, ‘How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Survey Data’, PLOS One, retrieved 13 April 2016, <http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0005738#s4>
Van Noorden, R 2011, ‘Science Publishing: The Trouble with Retractions’, Nature, Vol. 478, pp. 26 -28