Janice Boekhoff


Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a scientist? Sometimes people believe scientists sit around all day thinking about things. In actuality, very few of them have that luxury. Most of them are working hard to pay their own salary through funding for their research. Those of you in sales or marketing know what it’s like to be forced to sell your ideas in order to get paid.

This leads to temptation. Especially in a system where most scientists work at a university and are required to publish if they want to keep their position or receive tenure. Many of you have heard the phrase “publish or perish.” That describes life for a great number of scientists.

Temptation leads to fraud. Not for all of them, but some scientists will give in. They will compromise their ethics to make it ahead in the academic world.

Why are we surprised? We frown on this failure in a scientist but applaud it on television (Breaking Bad anyone). Our entire society has adopted a “flexible” model of ethical behavior and scientists are also affected by this world view.

I imagine a cartoon of a homeless scientist standing on a street corner with a sign that says “Will commit fraud for funding.”

Why are we surprised? Because we put scientists up on a pedestal. We believe everything they say, after all they’re smarter than most people. They must know better. But does smarter make you more ethical?

Some of you are saying to yourselves that I’m exaggerating and there can’t possibly be that many fraudulent scientific papers out there. Well, here’s some data for you: One online repository for preprinted articles (arXiv) started flagging manuscripts for plagiarism in 2011. Since that time, it has flagged 3% of the more than 300,000 articles for plagiarism (over 9,000 of them) and has also found that 1 in 16 researchers has an article flagged. Some might be accidental plagiarism, but not all of them. And that only deals with plagiarism.

In 2012, another study analyzed 2,047 retracted articles (ones pulled from magazines after being published) for the cause of the retraction. They found three-fourths of the retractions were for outright fraud, including falsification and misrepresentation of the data. In fact, an online website dedicated to reporting retractions, called Retraction Watch, says in their Frequently Asked Questions that they have trouble keeping up with the volume of retractions they need to report.

Why are we surprised? We shouldn’t be. So, the next time you’re tempted to blindly believe what’s presented as science, remember scientists aren’t perfect—they’re people.


Reference: http://retractionwatch.com/, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/02/science/study-finds-fraud-is-widespread-in-retracted-scientific-papers.html, http://news.sciencemag.org/scientific-community/2014/12/study-massive-preprint-archive-hints-geography-plagiarism

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