January 23, 2013, 11:08 AM —
Image credit: Flickr / RDECOM
It truly pains me to write this, but facts are facts.
A new study based on data from the U.S. Office of Research Integrity reveals that "men commit research misconduct more often than their female peers, a gender disparity that is most pronounced among senior scientists."
That's from the American Society for Microbiology, which published the study Tuesday in mBio, the organization's online open-access journal.
"Not only are men committing more research misconduct, senior men are most likely to do so," Joan W. Bennett of Rutgers University, a co-author on the study, said in a statement.
The study team reviewed annual reports from the U.S. Office of Research Integrity, a federal office within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that investigates allegations of misconduct in HHS-supported research (with "misconduct" being actions such as fabrication, falsification or plagiarism).
It identified "228 individuals who have committed misconduct, of which 94% involved fraud," from 1994 to the present. From the paper's abstract:
Analysis of the data by career stage and gender revealed that misconduct occurred across the entire career spectrum from trainee to senior scientist...
See? It could be anybody! Oh, wait.
...and that two-thirds of the individuals found to have committed misconduct were male. This exceeds the overall proportion of males among life science trainees and faculty.
Well, sure, it sounds bad for men if you put it that way.
Another co-author of the report, Arturo Casadevall of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, said the research team (which also included Ferric C. Fang of the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle) was surprised that misconduct was so widespread across career arcs.
"When you look at the numbers, you see that the problem of misconduct carries through the entire career of scientists," Casadevall said. More than half of the transgressions were committed by senior-level scientists such as faculty (32%) and other research personnel (28%), with students (16%) and post-doctoral fellows (25%) comprising just 41% of cases.
So what's fueling all the cheating? We touched on this last October when a study published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) revealed an alarming increase in scientific articles retracted due to fraud. My theory then: Flawed human beings, combined with familiar factors that cause people to lie and cheat: Pressure, greed and ego.
Bennett lends support to this viewpoint, citing the "winner take all" rewards system in the scientific/academic world. She goes further, though, arguing that this hyper-competitive environment also drives out women scientists.
"Many women are totally turned off by the maneuverings and starkly competitive way of the academic workplace," Bennett said. "Cheating on the system is just one of many factors that induce women to leave academe and seek professional careers in other environments."
As for why men in the life sciences commit fraud disproportionately more often than women who stay in the field, Fang can only offer that a "variety of biological, social and cultural explanations have been proposed for these differences, but we can't really say which of these apply to the specific problem of research misconduct."
Whatever the underlying reason, this is a serious problem. Science should be about the pursuit of truth. A dishonest scientist undermines this important principle and directive. In doing so, he -- and apparently it's usually "he" -- hands a potent weapon to malevolent skeptics and deniers who seek to discredit legitimate scientific findings for their own selfish or greedy purposes.
Honestly, men can be such jerks.