Letters to the Editor

In an Era of Fraud, Why Should Academe Be Immune?

October 29, 2012

To the Editor:

While fraud and other forms of misconduct in science are nothing new, they are particularly egregious in an enterprise that prides itself on rigor and objectivity. Although most surveys indicate that only a small minority of scientists are guilty of misconduct, that is still too much. Fortunately, science is self-corrective in the long run, and fraud is eventually exposed, but often at great cost and sometimes with tragic consequences.

As someone who devoted 32 years of his career to biomedical research, I attribute this misconduct to a number of factors. Foremost is that modern science has become an ultracompetitive, big-business venture in which the race for grants, publications, and recognition has become cutthroat in many areas. In addition, most granting agencies and journals will accept only leading-edge or breakthrough submissions, rather than merely solid, follow-up research. When young scientists, particularly postdocs, begin their independent careers, there is enormous pressure on them to "produce" if they hope to land jobs in an increasingly competitive market. "Produce" translates into as many publications as possible in major journals, which in turn translates into positive results or data only. Follow-up or confirmatory research simply doesn't cut it anymore.

Another factor in the rising frequency of fraud, cheating, and plagiarism in academia is that they are widely practiced in business and politics today. Why should academe be immune? In part to stem that tendency, we developed a bioethics course at my university that dealt with everything from animal and human research ethics to scientific and academic integrity. Most of our students were completely ignorant of these issues but were eager to learn more about them.

Klaus Brasch
Professor Emeritus of Biology
California State University
San Bernardino, Calif.