Scientific Misconduct Is Not a Hanging Offense—But

It’s widely believed that researchers found guilty of scientific misconduct have no choice but to turn in their lab coats and look for other work. I’ve always assumed that was so, from what I’ve observed and what I’ve heard from scientists. And I think that opinion is generally shared throughout the scientific community.

But it’s not so, says a contrarian article based on research into the fates of researchers deemed guilty of scientific misconduct in recent years. The belief that misconduct invariably or usually leads to scientific oblivion is unfounded, say the authors, Barbara K. Redman, of Wayne State University, and Jon F. Merz, of the University of Pennsylvania, writing in Science of August 8 (“Scientific Misconduct: Do the Punishments Fit the Crime?” subscription required).

They report that branding as a scientific miscreant can bring emotional and physical suffering, financial loss, and “major disruptions in … personal lives,” but a surprising number of the scientists they studied eventually resumed their professional lives.

Their sample was small—the 43 Ph.D’s, MD’s and MD/Ph.Ds among the 106 individuals found guilty of misconduct between 1994 and 2001 by the federal Office of Research Integrity. ORI watches over scientific purity for the National Institutes of Health and other Public Health Service agencies in the Department of Health and Human Services.

Under ORI rules, the punishable sins are “fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results.” In the Science report, the breakdown of offenses, including multiple infractions by 26 of the scientists, involved 36 charges of falsification or fabrication, 10 of plagiarism, and 12 of misrepresentation. Punishments consisted of debarment from Public Health Service grants and contracts and service on PHS advisory boards for approximately three years; 14 of the scientists were required to retract or correct published papers.

The 43 were described as “professional, faculty, or research scientists,” with all but one employed in non-profit organizations. Excluded from the study were students and fellows, who, justly or not, are probably more vulnerable to banishment from the profession than full-fledged degree holders.

From publications and other sources, the authors report, they located 28 of the 43 scientists, of whom 10 were still in academe, while eight others had moved to industry or “non-profit positions.” Twelve of the scientists published nothing after they were found guilty of misconduct.

Among the 43, of seven who agreed to interviews, six continued to publish after the ORI findings against them. The authors add that “43 percent of the academics whom we could trace remained employed in academia after being found guilty of misconduct, and overall, 19 of 37 scientists (51 percent) found to have committed misconduct continued to publish an average of one paper per year after their cases were decided.”

All of which leads to the question of whether federal authorities are only winking at scientists who go crooked, or are properly applying principles of punishment and forgiveness. Scientific misconduct is wrapped in mystery and controversy. Quite a few observers contend that the ORI system merely locates the proverbial tip of the iceberg and fails to confront rampant misdeeds throughout the scientific enterprise; others say misconduct is rare. The sample size reported in Science does not warrant broad conclusions about the personal consequences of a misconduct verdict.

Scientific misconduct is not a hanging offense, and commonly is treated as an administrative rather than criminal matter. In 2006, however, a finding of misconduct against an NIH grantee was followed by criminal prosecution for fraud, leading to a one-year jail term. But, so far, at least, that was a unique outcome.

Nonetheless, given science’s claims on public confidence and support, the ordinarily light penalties for misdeeds and swift return to work of certified offenders do invite wonder.

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