Sunday, 6 September 2009

Do Scientists Lie and Cheat?

Cheating is as old as life itself. We can find examples of people in business, politics, religious life, and marriages cheating as far as written records of history go. What about scientists?

Do scientists cheat?

Yes. Scientists do cheat.

Sometimes it is difficult to discern between error and intention to cheat. Researching the extent of intentional fraud among scientists, Daniele Fanelli of the University of Edinburgh, UK discovered that scientists cheat, lie and steal other people’s works. According to him:

  • 1.97% of scientists admit to having fabricated, modified or even falsified data or results at least once. 
  • A staggering 33.7% admitted other questionable research practices like changing the methodology, design or results of a study under pressure from a funding source. When evaluating the behaviour of colleagues
  • 14.12% was the rate of falsification 
  • 72% for questionable practices.
A 2005 study by Martinson, Anderson and de Vries found 3% of scientists admitting to cheating.

There are basically three ways that scientists cheat. 
  1. Plagiarism is when a scientist steals another’s work or parts of the work without attributing. 
  2. The second is falsifying data (wilfully distorting data or results), aka fudging or massaging
  3. Fabrication is when a scientist totally invents data, experiments or cases when none exists (aka drylabbing).

Examples of Scientists Cheating

Falsification of data: Marc D. Hauser, the eminent American evolutionary biologist and a researcher in primate behavior, animal cognition and human behavior had to resign from his teaching position at Harvard University (repeatedly voted the most popular teacher at Harvard Uni). 

Faking research: Hwang Woo-suk, a respected South Korean veterinarian, professor of theriogenology and biotechnology at Seoul National University was sacked for fabricating a series of experiments in stem cell research. 

Ethical Norms For Scientists

CUDOS or Mertonian Norms, introduced in 1942 by Robert Merton propose the principles, which should guide scientists as:
  • Communalism – Scientific results belong to the entire scientific community
  • Universalism –Anyone regardless of race, gender, nationality or culture can contribute.
  • Disinterestedness – Scientists should not mix their results with their personal beliefs or activism.
  • Scientific claims should stand critical scrutiny before being accepted.
Judson HF (2004) The Great Betrayal: Fraud in Science. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt is an methodical analysis and presents a historical sweep of scientific fraud. 

  • Even the giants of science like Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur, Gregory Mendel and Sigmund Freud fudged their data when it didn’t suit them. 

Judson, of course, points out that observing historical scientists through a modern lens might distort answers. Did their intuition lead them to correct answers even at the risk of compromising scientific principles?

Why Scientists Cheat?

Science is a very competitive field, where reputations are made over time and destroyed instantly. A scientists funding depends on his/her reputation gained by publishing high-profile scientific papers. When they suspect that other scientists, working on the same problem, are close to success some scientists bend a few rules to be the first. The body giving the funding may also pressure for a certain type of result. Hwang Woo-Suk fabricated results in stem cell research in two articles published in the prestigious journal Science and claimed he had succeeded in crating human embryonic stem cells by cloning.

Photo source:

Pride and the desire to achieve fame drive people like mad. Dr. Ranjit Kumar Chandra, a world famous expert in nutrition and immunology, recipient of the Order of Canada and presumably nominated twice for the Nobel prize, fabricated results, invented a fictitious researcher as well as engaging in other malpractices that ended his brilliant career.

Charles Dawson and the Piltdown Man 1912 forgery took forty years to be revealed.

Envy can be another motive. Vijay Soman, an assistant professor at Yale, was asked to peer review a paper by Helena Wachslicht-Rodbard. He sent back a negative review, delaying its publication. In a bizarre act of destiny, Helena Wachslicht-Rodbard was asked to peer review Soman’s paper and recognized it as her own. Quoted in Judson (2004).

Ambition and pride are very strong motives and peer review may not always be an effective detection method for catching fraud. Robert Slutsky, a famous radiologist at the University of California, San Diego, USA had a hefty portfolio with 137 published papers in 34 journals. 17 of them needed to be retracted, 12 were fraudulent and 48 questionable. Quoted in Judson (2004).

Why Scientists Rarely Go Against the Stream?

One in every five adult Americans believes that the Sun revolves around the Earth, according to a 2005 study by Dr. Jon D. Miller of Northwestern University.

‘Civilians’ may not be expected to be very science-savvy, but scientists themselves are about often not very critical about topical issues.

Many scientists privately disagree that humans are responsible for climate change, but hardly any scientific study is funded that dissents. Freeman Dyson, a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study comments: 
The climate-studies people who work with models always tend to overestimate their models... They come to believe models are real and forget they are only models.”
The 2009 Peter Doran and Kendall, Zimmerman study claimed after analyzing how many scientists believe in global warming: 
"It seems that the debate on the authenticity of global warming and the role played by human activity is largely nonexistent among those who understand the nuances and scientific basis of long-term climate processes.”
Is this complacency, the practical wisdom of reminding oneself not to bite the hand that feeds or ‘dark age’ behaviour by refusing to see what may often even be, to paraphrase the PowerPoint presentation winning the Nobel Prize, an ‘inconvenient truth’?

Currently there is hardly any ground on the basis of reliable studies to conclude that the percentage of crooked scientists is any different from the percentage of people engaged in fraud and malpractices in the general population.

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