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Nature pleads: Stop ignoring misconduct

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From Donald S. Kornfeld & Sandra L. Titus at Nature:

Only 10–12 individuals are found guilty by the US Office of Research Integrity (ORI) each year. That number, which the NIH used to dismiss the role of research misconduct1, is misleadingly low, as numerous studies show. For instance, a review2 of 2,047 life-science papers retracted from 1973 to 2012 found that around 43% were attributed to fraud or suspected fraud. A compilation of anonymous surveys3 suggests that 2% of scientists and trainees admit that they have fabricated, falsified or modified data. And a 1996 study4 of more than 1,000 postdocs found that more than one-quarter would select or omit data to improve their chances of receiving grant funding.

Nonetheless, we contend that when scientific leaders minimize “hoaxing, forging, trimming and cooking” as contributors to irreproducibility, they choose to ignore the problem rather than confront it. This mechanism is what psychiatrists term denial, when an individual faces what they believe to be an insoluble problem. Deliberate misconduct is a reality that government funders can and must address. In 2012, an article in this journal declared that “the time is right to confront misconduct”. We agree; it is even more urgent now. We recommend five key approaches (see ‘Preventing misconduct’). More.

Nature’s editors have been talking about this stuff seriously over the past few months. See, for example, Peer review “unscientific”: Tough words from Nature.

The editors are right, of course. It’s no use wittering that the public is “anti-science” if the standards of honesty in science are little better than one might expect of Honest John’s Used Car Sales (“Nothing over $2000!”). If we doubt Honest John, we should doubt science too, in that case.

On the other hand, it’s great to see so much honest discussion of the problems in the last couple of years, welcome relief from decades of fatuous cheerleading for “science.”

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See also: No one pays attention to science paper rebuttals


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