Science Careers Blog

January 22, 2013

Scientific Misconduct, Career Stage, and Gender Bias

A new study that looked at data from the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI) found
that scientific misconduct occurs all along the academic career ladder, and that male
researchers are more likely to engage in misconduct than their female counterparts.

In the study, which was published today in the online open-access journal mBio®, Ferric Fang of the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, Joan Bennett of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, and Arturo Casadevall of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City analyzed the findings of the cases of misconduct investigated by ORI. Based on the ORI annual reports, the study's authors found a total of 228 individuals to have committed misconduct since 1994.

Before doing the analysis, the three authors "expected most cases of misconduct to involve
research trainees," they admit in the research paper. But "we found that only 40% of
instances of misconduct were attributed to a postdoctoral fellow (25%) or student (16%).
Faculty members (32%) and other research personnel (28%) were responsible for the
remaining instances of misconduct, and these included both junior and senior faculty
members, research scientists, technicians, study coordinators, and interviewers." 

The finding raises the question of whether the current ethics training efforts, which largely target early-career scientists, are focused on the right people, the authors argue. This and other studies suggest that "efforts to improve ethical conduct may also need to target faculty scientists, who in some cases are directly responsible for misconduct and in others may be unintentionally fostering a research environment in which trainees and other research personnel feel pressured to tailor results to meet expectations."

The mBio® study also found that around 65% of the scientists whom ORI reported as having perpetrated misconduct were male scientists. When looking across the career ladder, the higher the rank, the more likely the fraudster seemed to be male: 88% of faculty members committing misconduct were male, compared with 69% of postdocs, 58% of students, and 42% of other research personnel. Even when taking into consideration intrinsic differences in gender representation in the life sciences, where most of the cases of misconduct investigated by ORI took place, males were still overrepresented when it came to misconduct. It's hard to determine the reasons behind the gender difference, but the authors believe that, partly at least, "Male predominance is but another example of the scientific enterprise reflecting social and cultural contexts."

The results may not be all that new or surprising to research ethics experts but, importantly, they reiterate the need to do more to tackle--and understand--the reasons behind scientific misconduct, for both genders and at all career stages.

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