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By Eisenman, Russell | Journal of Information Ethics, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

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Eisenman, Russell, Journal of Information Ethics


Research Fraud in Science: What Is Going On?

We hear more and more about research fraud and distortion. What is going on? Is research fraud really on the rise or do we just hear more about it now? And why would scientists engage in fraud in their research?

There is no way to tell if research fraud is more prominent now than years ago or if it just gets more publicity. Perhaps there is more cracking down on offenders and more pressure on journals to retract published articles that become suspect. Of course, the motive to commit fraud could be greater now, since grants are more competitive, there are bigger dollars at stake, good academic jobs are harder to get (and it helps if one has grants), and even if one has an academic job and tenure, it may not assure survival as universities become more like corporations and emphasize enrollment, conformity, and prefer adjuncts (Eisenman, 20i5). And in any society there will be dishonesty to a greater or lesser extent. Scientists are supposed to be honest, but that opens the door for some to gain status by getting results they otherwise could not achieve.

"Minor" Dishonesty?

Some scholars would not be blatantly dishonest by manufacturing false results, for example, but they might take some liberties to enhance their reputation. They may not consider this to be as bad as stealing or being fraudulent. That, at least, is what they may tell themselves. Consider the case (revealed to me by an insider) of some prominent psychology researchers who studied numerous variables (perhaps close to i00) but only three came out statistically significant. They wrote up their work as if only these three things were tudied, making it seem as if they had powerful results, when, actually, their results were likely due to chance. But they probably did not feel as if they were being dishonest and/or did not care, because a good pub lication enhanced their reputation.

Major Dishonesty

On the other hand, at times the fraud is major. A 20i2 Associated Press article refers to the case of Andrew Wakefield, who published a paper in the highly respected medical journal Lancet in i998 claiming that vaccines cause autism. The effect has been catastrophic. Many parents no longer allow their children to be vaccinated, and many once-conquered diseases have returned. Wakefield's article was later retracted, but not by him -he still claims to be innocent. But many people have been misled to believe a false etiology and to stop protecting their children from diseases via vaccines.

The Associated Press article also mentions that nine studies on cancer treatments done at Duke University were shown to be false, and the articles retracted by the journal. So, dubious or false research is being done on topics of major importance to society. At times the researchers may be obscure people or at obscure institutions, but at other times they are respected scholars at prestigious institutions. Gelman (20i2) discusses several cases of cheating in science, including that of Deiderik Stapel, a prominent social psychologist in the Netherlands, who has published at least i00 journal articles, who achieved fame, and who was exposed for making up numerous studies, published in top journals, e. …

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