How common is dishonesty and misconduct in science?

In the media recently was a revealling story on ‘dubious’ practices in research, describing how the well-known science publisher Elsevier had published a series of  ‘fake’ journals that were dedicated entirely to publishing results from drug company research (such as the ‘Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine, dedicated to Merck). On similair lines, a classic paper came out a few years ago showing  that ~1% of papers submitted to  The Journal of Cell Biology had digital images that had been ‘improperly manipulated’ prior to publication. Combine with this with the now infamous case of the ‘fake’ human stem cell lines from the Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk. and it does little to re-assure the public that scientists are keeping science ‘honest’.

To find out how common these habits really are, a recent publication in the journal PLoS ONE attempted to exam the proportion of scientists who  fabricate and falsify research. The results, based upon a meta-analysis of anonymous surveys from scientists from many disciplines, are surprising to say the least. An average of 1.97% of scientists admit to have fabricated, falsified or modified their results on at least one occasion, and upto 33.7% admitted to other ‘questionable’ research practices.

Intriguingly, when scientists were asked about their colleagues, the numbers increased dramatically – upto 14.2% for falsification, and upto 72% for other ‘questionable’ research practices. What seems slightly more alarming is that misconduct was apparently reported more frequently by medical & pharmacological researchers than other fields!Reassured yet? The article concludes with the following

‘Considering that these surveys ask sensitive questions and have other limitations, it appears likely that this is a conservative estimate of the true prevalence of scientific misconduct,’

‘It is likely that, if on average 2% of scientists admit to have falsified research at least once and up to 34% admit other questionable research practices, the actual frequencies of misconduct could be higher than this.'”

Click here to read the article in full at PloS ONE.

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