Why Scientific Fraud is More Pervasive Than You Might Think

Credit: ThinkStock

Credit: ThinkStock

When news stories reference the world of medical research, many might envision a community of dedicated and selfless scientists, working collaboratively with each other to discover cures for the ailments of humanity. Heartwarming, isn’t it?

The actual atmosphere, though, is very different than this. We can’t speak to the purity of researchers’ hearts, but it’s clear they operate in a high-stakes, cutthroat arena. Rather than seamlessly cooperating, many researchers act as though they are pitted against their peers in a no-holds-barred race to the top. And the results—surprise!—can be enormously problematic.

Stem Cell Ruse

Among the issues in this type of environment, hyper-competition can perpetuate academic fraud—most recently evidenced by a shocking revelation that two much-lauded papers on stem cell creation from one of Japan’s most prestigious research institutions are largely phony. After passing the peer-review process and receiving publication in the prestigious Nature journal, some skeptical investigators discovered the articles included plagiarized writing, misreported data and faulty images.

And oh, it gets darker: Both the lead and co-author of the papers were subsequently hospitalized for stress, and the co-author—who apparently failed to catch his colleagues’ truth-bending—committed suicide last week.

This is only the latest scandal to hit the stem cell research field—a community that has dished out a number of fraudulent papers and subsequent retractions over the past decade.

Why the Fraud?

So why do researchers feel the need to falsify their work? Slate’s Jane Hu provides several explanations:

* The hyper-competitive nature of the stem cell field, together with its minimal oversight, breeds the tendency to cut corners and, well, lie. The prestige involved in this field of medical research attracts highly competitive people just aching to make the next big contribution—before their peers.

* Besides personal ego, academic culture generally puts (ever-increasing) pressure on researchers to pound out solid publications to land tenure. Without this coveted assurance, academic researchers’ job security is nil.  

* Moreover, a study of research misconduct found that changes in researchers’ personal lives can further influence cheating. Fraudsters were more likely to report significant life changes like a loved one’s death or the birth of a child as contributing factors. Thus personal stress seems to be influential—at least according to the self-reported data.

Are There Solutions?

Academia is kind of a hot mess for a variety of reasons, and the historic occurrence of dishonesty is one of the shiniest examples. Some assert that overall, academic fraud is rare, though it’s impossible to know about the fabrications that aren’t caught. And I would posit that literally everyone in academia cuts some corners here and there. Research is complicated and labor-intensive, and people only have so many hours in the day. Granted, much of this corner-cutting is probably ultimately innocuous (a sloppy citation here, an overly-confident statement there) but others—like potentially significantly setting back assumptions about stem cells—can have very real effects.

When Nobel Prize-winning biologist Randy Schekman addressed academic fraud earlier in the year, he advocated for boycotting prestigious journals, period, saying the pressure to publish in them contributes to harmful writing practices and encourages sensational research over perhaps boring but important topics.

Changing this would require a major shift in academic culture—one that the behemoth may not be willing to do . . . continuance of fraud or not.


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