Scientific misconduct is the violation of the standard codes of scholarly conduct and ethical behavior in professional scientific research. This includes such actions as intentionally falsifying research results reported in a journal article, which is considered unethical and in some jurisdictions may be illegal. The definition also encompasses plagiarism and/or the violation of ethical standards regarding human and animal experiments, such as the standard that a human subject of the experiment must give informed consent to the experiment.
The word falsifying used above should not be confused with the legitimate and essential activity of finding and sharing evidence that contradicts a hypothesis (see falsifiability) but is used in the sense of deliberately presenting known false information as true with the intent to deceive.
Three percent of the 3,475 research institutions that report to the US Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Research Integrity, indicate some form of scientific misconduct. (Source: Wired Magazine, March 2004)
Motivation to commit scientific misconduct
According to David Goodstein of Caltech, there are three main motivators for scientists to commit misconduct, which are briefly summarised here.
Science is still a very strongly career-driven discipline. Scientists depend on a good reputation to receive ongoing support and funding; and a good reputation relies largely on the publication of high-profile scientific papers. Hence, there is a strong imperative to "publish or perish". Clearly, this may motivate desperate (or fame-hungry) scientists to fabricate results.
- "Knowing the right answer"
Even on the rare occasions when scientists do falsify data, they almost never do so with the active intent to introduce false information into the body of scientific knowledge. Rather, they intend to introduce a fact that they believe is true, without going to the trouble and difficulty of actually performing the experiments required.
- "The ability to get away with it"
In most scientific fields, results are often difficult to reproduce accurately, being obscured by noise, artifacts and other extraneous data. That means that even if a scientist does falsify data, they can expect to get away with it - or at least claim innocence if their results conflict with others in the same field.
Cases of alleged scientific misconduct and related incidents
Suppression/non-publication of data
A related issue concerns the deliberate suppression, failure to publish, or selective release of the findings of scientific studies. Such cases may not be strictly definable as scientific misconduct as the deliberate falsification of results is not present. However, in such cases the intent may nevertheless be to deliberately deceive. Studies may be suppressed or remain unpublished because the findings are perceived to undermine the commercial, political or other interests of the sponsoring agent or because they fail to support the ideological goals of the researcher. This is distinguishable from other concepts such as bad science, junk science or pseudoscience where the criticism centres on the methodology or underlying assumptions. It may be possible in some cases to use statistical methods to show that the datasets being offered in relation to a given field are incomplete. However this may simply reflect the existence real-world restrictions on researchers without justifying more sinister conclusions.
- William Broad & Nicholas Wade, Betrayers of the Truth. Oxford University Press, 1982