Scientific Fraud May Be More Widespread Than Thought, Poll Says

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By Elizabeth Lopatto
June 18, 2008

June 18 (Bloomberg) -- About 1,000 potential incidents of fabrication, falsification or plagiarism in scientific research go unreported every year, according to a survey that suggests such misconduct is far more prevalent than suspected.

On average, the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Research Integrity receives only 24 reports of suspected misconduct from academic and other research institutions yearly, according to a report in the journal Nature. The authors called for scientists and institutions to implement more safeguards against research fraud.

Rooting out fraud in scientific research has gained increased attention since 2006 when Seoul National University investigators confirmed that one of their scientists, Hwang Wook Suk, faked studies of human embryonic stem cells. Most of the potential misconduct identified in the survey was fabrication or falsification, such as altering research data, which accounted for 60 percent of the reported incidents.

``We want to know if we're handling misconduct appropriately,'' said Sandra Titus, the director of intramural research from the ORI and one of the study's authors. ``There's a feeling there's a disconnect between what the office sees and what's happening in the world.''

The data was based on surveys of 2,212 scientists holding research funding from the National Institutes of Health, asking if they believed they had observed fraud in 2002-2005. The scientists surveyed in the report said they observed 201 instances of ``likely misconduct'' over a three-year period, or about three cases per 100 people per year.

Extrapolating Results

NIH research grants support an estimated 155,000 scientists. Extrapolating the survey results, the researchers estimated that the 201 instances of misconduct over three years translated into about 1,000 cases of fraud that go unreported to government or institutional officials.

Research fraud happens even though the scientific community uses measures such as replicating original research, and evaluating it through a peer review system, said James Wells, a study author and director of research policy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

``Replication of research happens at a slow rate, and there's great pressure for personal advancement, for getting money,'' said Wells, the director of research policy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in telephone interview. ``The respondents did indicate that they thought the high level of job pressure is the biggest driver.''

About a quarter of what the observers believed to be misconduct in the survey was by postdoctoral fellows, and about 22 percent was by a professor or senior scientist.

To contact the reporter on this story: Elizabeth Lopatto in New York at elopatto@bloomberg.net.
Last Updated: June 18, 2008 14:21 EDT