How many scientists fabricate and falsify research?

Hwang Woo-Suk(C)

It's a long-standing and crucial question that, as yet, remains unanswered: just how common is scientific misconduct? In the online, open-access journal PLoS ONE, Daniele Fanelli of the University of Edinburgh reports the first meta-analysis of surveys questioning scientists about their misbehaviours. The results suggest that altering or making up data is more frequent than previously estimated and might be particularly high in medical research.

Recent scandals like Hwang Woo-Suk's fake stem-cell lines or Jon Sudbø's made-up cancer trials have dramatically demonstrated that fraudulent research is very easy to publish, even in the most prestigious journals. The media and many scientists tend to explain away these cases as pathological deviations of a few "bad apples." Common sense and increasing evidence, however, suggest that these could be just the tip of the iceberg, because fraud and other more subtle forms of misconduct might be relatively frequent. The actual numbers, however, are a matter of great controversy.

Estimates based on indirect data (for example, official retractions of scientific papers or random data audits) have produced largely discrepant results. Therefore, many researchers have asked scientists directly, with surveys conducted in different countries and disciplines. However, they have used different methods and asked different questions, so their results also appeared inconclusive.

To make these surveys comparable, the meta-analysis focused on behaviours that actually distort scientific knowledge (excluding data on plagiarism and other kinds of malpractice) and extracted the frequency of scientists who recalled having committed a particular behaviour at least once, or who knew a colleague who did.

On average, across the surveys, around 2% of scientists admitted they had "fabricated" (made up), "falsified" or "altered" data to "improve the outcome" at least once, and up to 34% admitted to other questionable research practices including "failing to present data that contradict one's own previous research" and "dropping observations or data points from analyses based on a gut feeling that they were inaccurate."

In surveys that asked about the behaviour of colleagues, 14% knew someone who had fabricated, falsified or altered data, and up to 72% knew someone who had committed other questionable research practices.

In both kinds of surveys, misconduct was reported most frequently by medical and pharmacological researchers. This suggests that either the latter are more open and honest in their answers, or that frauds and bias are more frequent in their fields. The latter interpretation would support growing fears that industrial sponsorship is severely distorting scientific evidence to promote commercial treatments and drugs.

As in all surveys asking sensitive questions, it is likely that some respondents did not reply honestly, especially when asked about their own behaviour. Therefore, a frequency of 2% is probably a conservative estimate, while it remains unclear how the figure of 14% should be interpreted.

More information: Fanelli D (2009) How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Data. 4(5): e5738. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005738,

Source: Public Library of Science (news : web)

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Citation: How many scientists fabricate and falsify research? (2009, May 29) retrieved 14 October 2019 from
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May 29, 2009
FTA:"The latter interpretation would support growing fears that industrial sponsorship is severely distorting scientific evidence to promote commercial treatments and drugs."

What an absolute crock. In any field where you have to produce results to get money REGARDLESS OF THE SOURCE you have the potential for this kind of problem.

Are they saying that you don't have to produce good results to get government grants?? If so, I'd say THAT'S more troubling than fabricating data to get the money. People who automatically assume money goes through some magical fairy tale cleansing because it filters through some bureaucrat's hands are naive in the EXTREME. That the people who did this research would even suggest such puerile nonsense is both ironic and hysterical.

May 29, 2009
I'm here to say that fraud is rampant in all areas.

In the commercial sector, I frequently see "scientists" grossly exagerating the probable promise of a new idea in need of investors. Often its a useless, impossible idea touted as the next best thing since sliced bread. Some have become multi-millionaires by doing it. This includes selling useless patents. My advice to investors: Don't just look at how rich the scientist is, look at how rich his past investors are.

I frequently see it happen to garner govt money, as well (SBIRs, grants, DOD, etc.).

Investors and taxpayers will never wake up, though, as long as their tummies are full, they are happy and optimistic.

May 29, 2009
Indeed and I agree. Commercial/profits interests in a consumer-driven economy infiltrated and distorted processes. Sponsored funded of research by those who profit from favorable outcomes of their own product highly suspect. I know factually that early data highly massaged or just perhaps deliberately mediocre for favorable outcomes in trials unknown to researchers particularly in the pharmaceutical industry leading to bad outcomes once distributed into the general population. How many times must this be demonstrated before reforms are initiated?

It is very sad and has led to distrust, rightfully so, of not only results but research initiatives. Incentives count unfortunately, currently the incentives are focused on political/market in too many sectors which should be free of these distortions, while ignoring the 1200 pound gorilla in the room.

May 29, 2009
I suspect every AGW paper is based on fabricated data or computer models that are desgiend to generate spurios data no matter what input is provided.

Recently the Steig paper on Antarctic "warming" has been demolished.

May 29, 2009

I regret to say that to the statement that "fraud is rampant in all areas" of science that I am familiar with, including astronomy, astrophysics, solar physics , climatology, planetology, nuclear and particle physics.

Congress caused this development when it turned the responsibility for review of budgets and programs of NASA, NSF, DOE, etc to NAS (National Academy of Sciences) - a private, self-perpetuating group of once talented scientists that has evolved into a group of self-serving scientists that use their positions of power to perpetuate their own inflated egos.

Sorry to speak so bluntly about my experiences over the past 50 years, since I started researching the origin of the solar system in 1960.

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel

May 29, 2009
Dishonesty in science has been elevated to an art form by the man-made global warming crowd. Their successes in getting tax dollars, and even a Nobel Peace Prize (go figure - what a ridiculous stretch) has taught unscrupulous scientists in other disciplines how the game is played today. How else can one explain the fact that the vast majority of self-annointed global warming experts' only credentials in climatology is that they have watched Al Gore's intellectually dishonest and deliberately error-filled video. If the biggest hoax of our lifetime not only goes unchallenged by so many in the scientific world, but is actually admired and emulated as the new way to financial and career success, then a growing culture of fraud in science should surprise nobody.

May 29, 2009
I remember an interesting article a while back, on a similar topic. The authors claimed that up to one-third of all references cited in research papers had not been glanced at more than a quick perusal of the title by the authors of said research paper. Furthermore, on average a total of one-eighteenth of the total references directly contradicted what the paper's author was claiming.

As a recent graduate, I know how hard it is to read through, in their entirety, sometimes more than a hundred references for a paper you want to submit... but it seems like researchers need to start budgeting more time for the paperwork.

May 29, 2009
"The latter interpretation would support growing fears that industrial sponsorship is severely distorting scientific evidence to promote commercial treatments and drugs."

Apparently, we aren't worried that political agenda-driven research funding by government agencies and foundations might be generating falsified or misleading research results and reports.

What nonsense!

May 29, 2009
Now I know why there have been no significant researches and improvements done on lie detectors for the last 50 years or so.

May 29, 2009
What does this imply about the conclusions about the causes of global warming? The opinion of the world-wide scientific community seems to be split on this question. How much of the conclusions are "bent"?

May 29, 2009
James Hansen seems to make up and alter data on a regular basis, and amazingly there are people who still listen to him even after he is repeatedly caught doing so.

May 30, 2009
Liberals believe anything a liberal leaning government scientist says. But then, as keeps saying, liberals say one thing, believe another, and then do another.

May 30, 2009
Clearly we can see by the comments here that science has become politicized, its not free. Once politics of any ilk enters the what should be sterilized sciences, it is rendered useless. Sterility from outside interests is what makes a science viable, instructive and progressive.

History is a fine teacher, science has often been held hostage throughout the centuries to fuzzy academic philosophical ideologies, religious ideologies and political ideologies. Unfortunately, private/profit and govt/political interests have infiltrated even the directives of research more profoundly than ever in my lifetime. They fool only themselves; however, anyone with half-a-synapse understands the massive imbalances and delusions. Both paradigms are false so a new one must be created; the question is will this be enabled to. Will people be enabled to create, innovate, study without these interests to tie both hands behind their backs and put blinders over their eyes?

Intellectual evolution is now required.

May 30, 2009
Intellectual evolution is now required.

I couldn't agree more, and I think the first step is realizing that there is a problem. I think this is happening today.

It seems that more and more people are becoming aware of these issues. I think they're also beginning to realize that despite their huge intellects and all the great things they've done for humanity that scientists are, after all, only human. The old "argument from authority" as a means of control and manipulation may be slowly coming to an end with respect to this issue. This at least is heartening and may begin to allow us to see a better way of organizing our resources for scientific purposes.

May 30, 2009
Generally speaking, scientists know . . . or knew . . . that they should be honest about their work because their lives depend on it.

Scientist today may not depend on good results with their lives; i've argued to Eric Drexler, Chris Pheonix, Mike Treder, and posted on their incrowd controlled messageboards that humanity cannot be bound up on one planet because irrationality will take over(I've pointed out mathematical science abstractions is creativity of ideas or structural forms; and, how, irrationalists and fear mongers essentially use vague ideas to smooth over their contorted ideas; and, they can't handle it . . .emotionally; i've e-mailed Eric Drexler twice over the last two years after years of trying Chris Phoenix . . . and his responce is 'no responce'! I guess he's decided against being a foreighted person! He just plays his incrowdy games behind the scene . . . hence being essentially nazy, gangster like). They've completelly ignored and who knows what else what I've said.

If science and humanity(humanity is the technologically dependent and hence scientifically dependent species) is to survive, it must be allowed to expand out into space getting away from our irrationalist past; out there, people will have to think clearly to survive and use nanotechnologies wisely.

May 31, 2009
A rather intriguing article followed by some intriguing if a little too shrill comments. No doubt fraud is "rampant" what ever that means, but even so, I would have thought if scientists are producing bogus results one would have thought that it shouldn't take too long to weed these people/results out: "cold fusion" anyone? By the way could the anti-global warming crowd, who've now morphed into the anti-man-made global warming crowd, spare us the endless "gotcha's" it's tiresome and not at all helpful. Produce the evidence, fake it if you have to, clearly it's not that hard and people are easily fooled, aren't they?

May 31, 2009
2% would not make global warming a huge conspiratorial falsehood. There are a lot of studies on global warming, and it would be very unlikely if all of them were faked.

On the other hand, this could have a huge impact on medical research. 2% could encompass all of the research on a particular drug, or on several drugs (so people would be taking something that has no beneficial effect, and probably many bad effects).

May 31, 2009
When money walk in, truth walks out.

Jun 01, 2009
Not only is this true, it isn't even new. Ever heard of Vioxx? Feldene? 10-15 years back these drugs were highly touted, and heavily prescribed wondercures for muscle and joint pain. They were FDA approved as having limited, and rarely occurring side effects. Then people started dropping dead from blood clots and heart attacks. How did this happen? Easy, the FDA approves things based on clinical trials designed around statistical assumptions. Anyone in the Bio/Pharma world knows that the secret to getting a drug past the FDA, is not it's efficacy, its how nifty your statistics are. That is why today, 6/1/09, Biovest stock is up 80% after meeting their endpoint in a clinical trial. Thing is, 2 years ago, the now bankrupt Genetope failed a clinical trial with the same drug and the same efficacy? WHY WOULD THE EXACT SAME DRUG, YEILDING THE SAME RESULTS PASS ONE TRIAL AND FAIL ANOTHER? Because one used fancier statistics to put more emphasis on one factor rather than another. In other words, no science, all smoke and mirrors. And as a result, even most of the preliminary medical research you read is done this way, so, sadly, you almost never actually know the facts. Awful funny thing to call science.

Global Warming is the other elephant in this discussion. Here again, we see statistics used a substitute for science, and as a result anyone with an agenda is contracting statisticians to create their preferred version of reality. And sure enough, should you happen to eavesdrop on any debate on global warming, and you won't hear the first thing about geology, astronomy or thermodynamics. All you'll hear is one set of statistical assumptions being argued against another. A joke.

And of course this is all above and beyond the old fashioned scientific misconduct where Ph.Ds steal patents from naieve graduate students. Though these new modes of misconduct are quickly gaining ground, this one has a long and illustruous history of soiling the scientific landscape. As an aspiring 21 year old chemist, I had 3 snatched myself from an old geezer who could barely keep from crapping his pants, but was still wiser in the ways fo the world than I. Oh the good ol days. At least I got the chance to do real science in the process.

This is what happens in a world where the appearance of something holds more merit than the actual thing. Grants, hedge funds, advertizers and the media have all conspired to levy scientific validity in terms of dollars and cents. Problem is what looks good now, will come back to haunt us tenfold when it proves to be the failure it is. Look no further than your president to see the proof of that...

Jun 06, 2009
I hate to be a spoiler, but there isn't all that much fraud in science. Not unless you have a pretty unrealistically strict definition of fraud.

Oh, sure, there is exaggeration, there is ignorance, there is willful blindness occasionally. But it basically works, and even under severe competitive pressure people stay remarkably honest.

Scientists are only human, and I really do not like the need to hype one's results in order to get grant money. I really do not need to tie everything to government research agendas like "homeland security". It distorts things and introduces an incentive to be dishonest.

But, I am always pleasantly surprised when I talk to people. They want to be honest, to do it right, to really learn something. For those who are interested, there's an expanded comment at http://kochanski....g/?p=123 .

Jun 06, 2009
Scientists are human. They are capable of honesty and dishonesty. They're are also capable of error. And yet if one questions the scientific "status quo", questioner beware.

This is so laughable.

And to think, the basis of REAL science is to ask questions.

Jul 23, 2009
As a layman, I'm not qualified to evaluate the scientific validity of the meta-analysis. Any instance of fraud in scientific research strikes me as an especially pernicious manifestation of the reckless self-interest that seems to rule our world. I read an interesting comment on the meta-analysis by author Michael Laitman, who has a scientific background but a perspective on science and reality that is unique in my experience. His comment is at http://www.laitma...trument/

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