scary stuff, continued: researcher misconduct

On All Hallow’s Eve, it’s time to flip off the lights, take out the flashlight to illuminate our faces from below, and swap scary stories.  For some of us, the scary stuff lurks constantly, just around the corner where we work: the unfinished thesis, courtesy of Academia Obscura:


But, far worse horrors exist – namely, researcher misconduct.  While the most obvious cases of falsified data and plagiarized writings are caught and retracted,  more subtle cases are unfortunately harder to pursue, prove, and punish.

Are these cases of sociopathic scholars or scholars made sociopathic by the system?   At least two civil engineers worry that the current academic system of incentives could possibly tip scholars towards misconduct.  In their abstract, authors Marc A. Edwards and Siddhartha Roy warn about how the increasingly competitive race for funding in STEM could potentially ruin scholarship.

Over the last 50 years, we argue that incentives for academic scientists have become increasingly perverse in terms of competition for research funding, development of quantitative metrics to measure performance, and a changing business model for higher education itself. Furthermore, decreased discretionary funding at the federal and state level is creating a hypercompetitive environment between government agencies (e.g., EPA, NIH, CDC), for scientists in these agencies, and for academics seeking funding from all sources—the combination of perverse incentives and decreased funding increases pressures that can lead to unethical behavior. If a critical mass of scientists become untrustworthy, a tipping point is possible in which the scientific enterprise itself becomes inherently corrupt and public trust is lost, risking a new dark age with devastating consequences to humanity. Academia and federal agencies should better support science as a public good, and incentivize altruistic and ethical outcomes, while de-emphasizing output.

In particular, Edwards and Roy single out three conditions as problematic in sites where much of research is conducted: the university:

Recently, however, an emphasis on quantitative performance metrics (Van Noorden, 2010), increased competition for static or reduced federal research funding (e.g., NIH, NSF, and EPA), and a steady shift toward operating public universities on a private business model (Plerou, et al., 1999; Brownlee, 2014; Kasperkevic, 2014) are creating an increasingly perverse academic culture.

They note how academics fear that misconduct is becoming widespread as opposed to isolated instances:

Ultimately, the well-intentioned use of quantitative metrics may create inequities and outcomes worse than the systems they replaced. Specifically, if rewards are disproportionally given to individuals manipulating their metrics, problems of the old subjective paradigms (e.g., old-boys’ networks) may be tame by comparison. In a 2010 survey, 71% of respondents stated that they feared colleagues can “game” or “cheat” their way into better evaluations at their institutions (Abbott, 2010), demonstrating that scientists are acutely attuned to the possibility of abuses in the current system.

They also worry that people attracted to academia for altruistic reasons will be turned off by the perverse incentives and exit the system for careers and workplaces that are more consistent with their values and goals:

While there is virtually no research exploring the impact of perverse incentives on scientific productivity, most in academia would acknowledge a collective shift in our behavior over the years (Table 1), emphasizing quantity at the expense of quality. This issue may be especially troubling for attracting and retaining altruistically minded students, particularly women and underrepresented minorities (WURM), in STEM research careers. Because modern scientific careers are perceived as focusing on “the individual scientist and individual achievement” rather than altruistic goals (Thoman et al., 2014), and WURM students tend to be attracted toward STEM fields for altruistic motives, including serving society and one’s community (Diekman et al., 2010, Thoman et al., 2014), many leave STEM to seek careers and work that is more in keeping with their values (e.g., Diekman et al., 2010; Gibbs and Griffin, 2013; Campbell, et al., 2014).

Under the subheading “If nothing is done, we will create a corrupt academic culture,” the authors warn about the collapse of the academic commons.  At the end of their paper, they offer several possibilities for starting to address these issues, including research into the dimensions of research misconduct, a more explicit discussion of values, and a reconfiguration of incentives:

  1. (1) The scope of the problem must be better understood, by systematically mining the experiences and perceptions held by academics in STEM fields, through a comprehensive survey of high-achieving graduate students and researchers.

  2. (2) The National Science Foundation should commission a panel of economists and social scientists with expertise in perverse incentives, to collect and review input from all levels of academia, including retired National Academy members and distinguished STEM scholars. The panel could also develop a list of “best practices” to guide evaluation of candidates for hiring and promotion, from a long-term perspective of promoting science in the public interest and for the public good, and maintain academia as a desirable career path for altruistic ethical actors.

  3. (3) Rather than pretending that the problem of research misconduct does not exist, science and engineering students should receive instruction on these subjects at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Instruction should include a review of real world pressures, incentives, and stresses that can increase the likelihood of research misconduct.

  4. (4) Beyond conventional goals of achieving quantitative metrics, a PhD program should also be viewed as an exercise in building character, with some emphasis on the ideal of practicing science as service to humanity (Huber, 2014).

  5. (5) Universities need to reduce perverse incentives and uphold research misconduct policies that discourage unethical behavior.


Written by katherinechen

October 31, 2016 at 4:48 pm

5 Responses

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  1. It’s worth noting that Mark Edwards, coauthor of the article, was the one who helped Flint activists that their water was in fact full of lead, when the Michigan DEQ was trying to claim it was safe:



    October 31, 2016 at 5:19 pm

  2. “(3) Rather than pretending that the problem of research misconduct does not exist, science and engineering students should receive instruction on these subjects at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Instruction should include a review of real world pressures, incentives, and stresses that can increase the likelihood of research misconduct.”

    All of my research assistants on Federal grants are required by the agencies to take training and obtain the consequent certificate for the Responsible Conduct of Research. If they do not complete this, my grant funds may be held up and the students’ paychecks may be halted. The training covers most of the issues implied by the post, as well as others such as appropriate behaviors toward RAs. Your IRB should have this training available for all students, faculty, and other staff who wish to take it (even social scientists!).



    October 31, 2016 at 6:15 pm

  3. Important topic and good to see it addressed. But seriously: who thought up WURM as an acronym here? Are the people you want to attract really going to feel more welcome in fields where they’re known as WURM students?


    Nathan Lauster

    November 1, 2016 at 5:20 am

  4. One of the main reasons I left science was because of the careerism & the calculated gaming of the system I witnessed – artificially increasing publication counts, horse-trading over grants, etc. This was before the more egregious “quantitative metrics” were introduced, which I sincerely doubt measure what they purport to, and which I sincerely doubt are well intentioned.

    Years ago David Colquhoun at UCL wrote a large number of blog posts on exactly this topic, pointing out the new standards did not in any way relate to research output, but to money spent and overhead billable. I’m afraid his internet design skills are stuck in the dark ages, be prepared for a MySpace flashback. The two best pieces are as follows:

    This has been going on for a long time, and nothing has changed.



    November 1, 2016 at 9:35 am

  5. Reblogged this on Would You Consider? and commented:
    It is not just the Media which has been lying thru their teeth. Research dollars have become the tool by which unemployed scientists make a living. “I will support your nonsense for a fee.”



    November 3, 2016 at 11:06 am

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