Scientists cheat, too—and this is a very big problem



cheating (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)


Cheating amongst students grabs the headlines one day. Everyone knows about cheating in the business world. Think Libor.


A smaller story about cheating on the inside page of the NY Times is equally upsetting, if only because it comes from an unexpected quarter.


Now the culprits are research scientists.


More than 2,000 papers were analyzed. These were scientific findings that were published in journals but later retracted. When the news first reported the retractions in publications in the biomedical and life sciences fields, the reason offered for the recalls was that the researchers had made honest mistakes.


When looked at more closely, it turns out that three-quarters of the retracted papers were fraudulent. Researchers engaged in active falsification of data, not computational mistakes.


Benjamin Druss, an Emory University professor of health policy, notes that while the number of published research papers is high, the overall percentage is low, about one in 10,000.


Cheating in schools is a serious matter because it undermines the integrity of education. A real education means a student has learned the subject matter. There is no way of knowing what a cheater has learned. More seriously, it makes every potential employer question what an applicant knows and will do.


Cheating in business undercuts the trust that is necessary for efficient economic functions. There is no way to know the true market value of goods or services when the price has been manipulated.


Cheating in the sciences may be the most serious form of fraud. The modern world rests upon society accepting the outcomes of scientific research. Without trust in the scientific procedure, there is no way to know the quacks from the experts. Society can no longer sift through competing claims. Who knows which is snake oil and which a true medicine?


Underlying the streak of cheating in education, business and science is a single factor: the pressure to succeed and the steep cost of failure. One of the authors of the study of fraud in the biomedical and life sciences research, Arturo Casadevail of Albert Einstein College of Medicine, says that the increase in fraudulent papers is due to winner-take-all atmosphere in the field. He notes that getting a paper published in a major journal is the difference between heading a lab and heading for the door.


Just as schools scramble to figure out better ways to keep students from cheating and the government struggles to find better regulatory techniques to rein in business fraud, journals are looking at enhanced plagiarism hardware.


Casadevail doesn’t disagree with this but concludes, much as I do, “I don’t think this problem is going to go away as long as you have this disproportionate system of rewards.”


In school: don’t get grades high enough to get into the best colleges, then there is the stigma of being a failure. And don’t get grades high enough in college to get a good job after graduation, there is the prospect of moving down the economic ladder.


In business: don’t increase the bottom line every year, then you will replaced by someone else who will.


In all this cases, it isn’t bad people who are doing bad things, although there are certainly some of those who are moral failures. It is the cultural values that drive people to cut corners in order to protect what they view as their vital interests.


In fact, those interests aren’t vital at all. What is vital is maintaining the integrity of individuals and society as a whole. Without that we will slide back into the realm of gross inequality and superstition.



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