Fraud, fakery, or larceny is what ordinary people would call it. But in the sciences’ refined venues the proper term is “misconduct,” and there’s a lot more of it than official figures show, according to a report in Nature (19 June), “Repairing research integrity.”
Perhaps it’s nostalgia for my journalistic apprenticeship as a police reporter that draws me to such publications. But as much as I relish a crackdown on miscreants in lab coats, I’m wary of this report, though it has impressive authorship: a University of Wisconsin official responsible for research policy, and a current and a retired official of the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI), which monitors scientific purity for the National Institutes of Health and other parts of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Under ORI’s procedures, grantee institutions are the first line of defense against misconduct, officially defined as “fabrication, falsification or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results.” Upon receiving an allegation of scientific wrongdoing on their premises, research institutions are required to hold an inquiry — i.e., a quick review. If the allegation holds up, next comes a presumably deep investigation. Though locally conducted, the investigation must be reported to ORI.
The authors report that, on average in recent years, the number of investigations annually reported to ORI was merely 24! In 2007, a typical year, NIH supported 155,000 researchers — which leads the trio to conclude that they’ve come upon “an alarming picture of under-reporting,” or, as they put it, “the tip of a much larger iceberg.”
To determine whether there’s more going on than the official reports indicate, the authors sent out questionnaires that asked 4,298 NIH grantees at 605 institutions whether they had observed “possible research misconduct” during three prior years. Responses arrived from 2,212 researchers, of whom 164 reported 201 instances of “likely misconduct” during that time frame. Extrapolating from that response to the full pool of NIH researchers, the authors calculate that “more than 2,300 observations of potential misconduct are made every year. Not all are being reported to universities and few of these are being reported to the ORI.”
Now, given the rivalrous, sometimes venomous, atmosphere that prevails in departments and laboratories, especially in the sciences’ scarcity economy of recent times, claimed observations of misdeeds invite some skepticism. Only 11 percent of the misdeeds were “directly observed,” while nearly 30 percent came under the heading of “told first, then observed.”
Are we encountering here a whiff of hysteria reminiscent of ancient witch hunts?
Scientific misconduct probably exists, in excess of the official count. But the survey method is no way to determine incidence or to instill virtue in the tempted.
The Nature authors briefly refer to the most useful suggestion yet made in the long-running concerns over scientific misconduct: Occasional audits of laboratory records to match up publications with the underlying research. Knowing that the auditors may drop in unannounced could have a wondrously elevating influence on scientific integrity.