Findings of Scientific Misconduct … the Rest of the Story

Update: Philip Ball discusses the Redman & Merz study and what punishment of misconduct is intended to achieve in an extended commentary in Nature, Crime and Punishment in the Lab. The comments are just coming in and will no doubt be lively. Don’t forget to add your own.

Science has a policy forum article by Barbara Redman and Jon Merz entitled “Scientific Misconduct: Do the Punishments Fit the Crime?” In 2003, they examined data from an 8-year period (1994-2001) during which ORI cited 106 individuals for engaging in misconduct, 43 of whom had doctoral degrees and established research careers. Redman and Merz looked at PubMed records before and after the ORI ruling for all 43 and were ultimately able to interview 7 of these individuals.

Briefly, publications for the 37 individuals who had citations in PubMed dropped from 2.1 before the misconduct ruling to 1.0 after; 12 did not publish at all after being charged with misconduct.

Using publication records, the authors were able to trace 28 of the 43 individuals; 23 of these had been at Universities at the time of the misconduct finding, yet at follow-up, less than half (n=10) remained in academia. The authors successfully contacted 22 of the 28 traceable researchers and:

Interviews were held with seven individuals, who all reported financial and personal hardship. Six hired lawyers to defend themselves; surprisingly, three reported receiving some assistance from their institutions, one with legal help and two with nonfinancial support. Several reported that they could not appeal their cases because they lacked the resources to do so. Several became physically ill and experienced major disruptions in their personal lives.

Nonetheless, most reported that they had recovered or sustained useful scientific lives after initial shocks to their reputations. Indeed, six of the seven continued to publish in the years after the ORI determination (the exception had moved to industry). Our interviewees were more productive than the other scientists, publishing on average 1.3 more papers per year after their cases were decided (t = 2.77, P = 0.0045), and they were less likely to have been excluded from federal grants and contracts (Fisher’s exact test, P = 0.019). Thus, the picture of the consequences painted by our interviews, which shows both the hardship of punishment and the chance for redemption, is perhaps more positive than it should be.

With regard to the punishments themselves, Redman and Merz note:

There were few differences in number or duration of sanctions between those who committed fabrication and/or falsification, plagiarism, or misrepresentation. The only systematic differences observed were (i) retraction was never required after plagiarism and (ii) those who had falsified and/or fabricated data were 8.8 times (z = 2.34, P = 0.019) more likely than others to receive grant debarments and received on average 0.6 more sanctions.

They conclude that “Overall, the punishments we observed were related to the crimes: Acts of falsification and fabrication were punished more harshly than were acts of plagiarism.” (The Chronicle includes some additional quotes from the authors on their study.) I suspect a large body of interested individuals are watching to see if this eventually holds true for the recent unpleasantness in North Carolina.


  1. BB said

    You could look at it as people got away with murder. Or you could look at it as people did wrong, were caught, punished, and rehabbed. Should science be one of the few professions where “misconduct” means you’ve lost the means to earn your living forever? Not all types of “misconduct” are equal. I admit that my issue of “Science” did not come yet so I have not read the article.

  2. writedit said

    As an addendum, ORI has its own report from 1996 on the outcomes experienced by Accused but Exonerated Individuals in Research Misconduct Cases (which at the time accounted for about 70% of cases brought to ORI). RTI in NC conducted the survey (105 cases, 86 surveys mailed, 54 responses).

    • 60% of respondents reported experiencing one or more negative consequences of being accused of scientific misconduct even though the allegation was unsupported
    • 17% reported severe consequences (loss of position, promotions, or salary increase)
    • 42% reported less severe consequences (threatened lawsuits, additional allegations, ostracism, reduction in research or staff support, delays in processing manuscripts or grant applications, and pressure to admit misconduct)
    • 40% reported no negative consequences

    • 90% of respondents who reported negative consequences indicated that the negative actions began during the inquiry and/or investigation
    • 65% reported these negative actions continued after the final determination

    • 57% of respondents viewed the overall impact of the allegation on their career as neutral
    • 39% viewed it as negative
    • 4% viewed it as positive

    • 94% of respondents were still conducting research
    • 71% were at the same institution where the allegation of misconduct occurred
    • 75% of those who changed institutions viewed this change as desirable

    • 37% of respondents thought it likely there would be continuing stigma associated with the misconduct accusation
    • 52% thought this unlikely
    • 11% did not know

  3. […] article published in Science last August, Scientific Misconduct: Do Punishments Fit the Crime?, as discussed previously here and in Nature… not to mention the ORI survey data published in Nature about the […]

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