Why Research Fraud Is Getting Worse

Until we disincentivize number-fudging, academic scientists will continue to cheat.

Once a rarity, research fraud is on the rise at some of the nation’s most prestigious universities. What is most disturbing is that the fraud in question too often involves tenured professors with sterling reputations who betray the public’s trust.

Most recently, the venue was Florida State University, where Professor Eric Stewart was terminated for “research misconduct” and for the unprecedented number of his articles that were retracted. Next in line was the City University of New York, which found “egregious misconduct” in data management and recordkeeping on the part of Hoau-Yan Wang, a professor in its School of Medicine who was working on an Alzheimer’s drug.

Earlier this decade, Harvard Business School accused Francesca Gino, a prominent professor, of data fraud in four behavioral-science papers. (Ironically, Gino’s research concerned why people lie.) Acting on a tip from the social-science research blog Data Colada, Harvard placed Gino on unpaid leave and is seeking to revoke her tenure. After Harvard came Stanford, where the president, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, resigned after a series of investigations revealed that he had failed to live up to standards “of scientific rigor and process” and had not corrected the record on numerous occasions. The founders of Retraction Watch estimate that “at least 100,000 retractions should occur every year.” When retractions are underperformed or underreported, public confidence in research is severely undermined.

The fear of exposure or other consequences has left schools with little choice but to intervene when employees commit research fraud.In the past, universities were reluctant to hold their faculty accountable for misconduct because research brought in millions of taxpayer dollars. Schools still want the money, of course, but the fear of exposure on the Internet or consequences in U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings has left them with little choice but to intervene. That explains what happened at Harvard, Stanford, and CUNY most recently. It also applies to the other elite universities, including Duke and Cornell, that have hosted misconduct over the past few years.

The best illustration of how the system works was seen in early October, when University of Pennsylvania researcher Katalin Karikó was awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine despite a strained relationship with her employer. According to the Wall Street Journal, Karikó’s prize offered a glimpse into “the clubby, hothouse world of academia and science, where winning financial funding is a constant burden, securing publication is a frustrating challenge, and those with unconventional or ambitious approaches can struggle to gain support and acceptance.” It’s a flawed system—and one that occasionally presents researchers with incentives to fudge the numbers—but it is highly resistant to change.

Yet too much is on the line to accept the status quo. In the final analysis, the academic culture that the Wall Street Journal highlighted is to blame. It demands research that is original, but that standard is often determined by the journal in which the research appears. Technical journals command greater respect than interdisciplinary ones. Books, ironically, don’t pay off because they take too long to write. And even if “successful” research breaks through, how much of it actually contributes to what former assistant secretary of education Chester Finn once called the “enlargement of human knowledge”?

As one wag put it, the key to getting published in an academic journal involves five steps: Don’t pick an important problem, don’t challenge existing beliefs, don’t obtain surprising results, don’t use simple methods, and don’t write clearly. A serious look at the scientific literature reveals that much of it is scientifically meaningless.

But as long as researchers are heralded primarily on the basis of how often they publish rather than on the quality of their publications, little will change. (Even more advanced citational metrics have problems.) In 1988, Charles Sykes made it clear in Profscam that “volume rather than insight is what counts [in academia], and conformity rather than originality is what is rewarded.” In short, careerism prevails, while the actual advancement of human knowledge flounders.

As long as researchers are heralded primarily on the basis of how often they publish, little will change.Since this is the case, the source of research funding is crucial. When research involves federal money, the Office of Research Integrity needs to be given greater power to investigate misconduct. Former President Dwight Eisenhower, in his 1961 farewell address, was right in his warning about government grants, but even he didn’t go far enough. Campbell’s Law has since warned that “the more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

The truth is that research is at a crossroads in this country. The present model has clearly paid off in the number of awards bestowed on researchers here. Since 1901, Americans have been the recipients of far more Nobel Prizes in medicine, chemistry, and physics than researchers in any other nation. But it has come at a price in the form of incentives to commit fraud.

The question is how much scandal we are willing to tolerate. As Edward Archer explained to the Martin Center’s readers three years ago, “The relentless pursuit of taxpayer funding has eliminated curiosity, basic competence, and scientific integrity in many fields.” As a result, “scientifically meaningless research … endangers the public, confounds public policy, and diminishes our nation’s preparedness to meet future challenges.”

Nevertheless, the allure of federal funding is powerful, even in a world in which schools occasionally profit from research patents. As the New York Times has reported, “Universities make money from patents primarily by licensing them to outside companies, which turn them into commercial products.” In a standard licensing deal, royalties are split between “researchers, their academic department and the university’s general fund.” Although a 1980 law “gave universities ownership of patents arising from federally funded research,” the vast majority of licensing deals yield little or no money. This is why outside research grants are so important. Most universities simply can’t afford to fund scientific research without federal money.

With hundreds of millions of dollars on the table, universities will continue to openly denounce fraud, but they will covertly fight anything that threatens to reduce the federal dollars flowing into their coffers. Shrinking student populations, declining government support, and growing resistance to tuition increases on the part of the public make universities reluctant to be part of the research-fraud solution. It’s not a hopeful picture.

Walt Gardner taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and was a lecturer in the UCLA Graduate School of Education.