WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Research misconduct at U.S. institutions may be more common than previously suspected, with 9 percent of scientists saying in a new survey that they personally had seen fabrication, falsification or plagiarism.
The survey of 2,212 mainly biomedical scientists at 605 universities and other research institutions, published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, also showed that researchers are very reluctant to report bad conduct.
Thirty-seven percent of cases of suspected misconduct were never reported to the institution involved for investigation, perhaps due to fear of reprisals for turning in a colleague or a desire to protect the flow of research money.
“There’s more misconduct, or potential for misconduct, out there than probably anyone has appreciated before. And a good part of that goes unreported,” James Wells, director of the Office of Research Policy at the University of Wisconsin who helped conduct the survey, said in a telephone interview.
“Usually what happens is that somebody very close to the research has to observe this going on. And they have to step forward and report it to their institution in order for something to happen. And they can very often be jeopardizing themselves,” added Wells.
Wells did the survey with two experts from the U.S. Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Research Integrity.
The findings come at a time of concern among U.S. lawmakers and others about research integrity in the United States and abroad, financial conflicts of interest by scientists who get paid by drug companies, and study results being warped by the influence of pharmaceutical industry research funding.
For example, U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley accuses prominent Harvard University psychiatrist Dr. Joseph Biederman and others of failing to fully disclose payments from drug companies.
Wells said the new survey, conducted in 2006, did not look specifically at such financial conflicts of interest.
Instead, it asked scientists to state whether they had seen acts that would meet the government’s definition of research misconduct — fabrication, falsification or plagiarism in conducting research, reporting findings or seeking grants.
In all, 192 scientists — 8.7 percent — said they observed or had direct evidence of researchers in their own departments committing suspected research misconduct over the past three academic years. They described 265 incidents of bad conduct.
Wells and colleagues then evaluated the allegations, and found that some did not meet the threshold of the federal definition of misconduct, leaving 201 cases of misconduct stated by 164 scientists, or 7.4 percent of the respondents.
The findings indicate that more than 2,300 cases of misconduct may be occurring each year at U.S. research sites.
Examples of misconduct reported by the survey respondents include changing data to “improve” findings, submitting false data to win a grant and misrepresenting findings.
Wells and his colleagues wrote that the HHS research integrity office receives only about two dozen reports of research misconduct a year, a mere “tip of the iceberg.”
Merrill Goozner, who heads the Integrity in Science Project at the activist group Center for Science in the Public Interest, said, “It’s really the universities’ responsibility to police this. And as we’ve seen in the (financial) conflict-of-interest field, they do a very poor job.”
Wells noted that there have been no previous comparable national surveys into U.S. research integrity, meaning it is hard to say whether the problem is getting worse, or whether it is any worse in the United States than elsewhere.
One of the most prominent examples of research fraud in recent years involved South Korean researcher Hwang Woo-suk, who admitted in 2006 to fabricating stem cell data.
(Editing by Julie Steenhuysen and Cynthia Osterman)