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Scientific misconduct estimated to drain millions each year

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calculating the cost of scientific misconductAs speculation swirls around the status of possible investigations into research by the prolific Harvard psychologist Marc Hauser, a new study drills down to figure out the true cost of scientific misconduct.

Neither Harvard nor the federal government, which has funded some of Hauser’s work that has been retracted or amended, has come forward with statements about the status of the scholar’s work. But in the meantime, any investigation is likely costing the university—and possibly the government—a pretty penny, according to the new work, published online August 17 in PLoS Medicine.

Scientific misconduct is defined as "fabrication, falsification or plagiarism in proposing, performing or reviewing research or in reporting research results," according to the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI). A 2009 meta-analysis of misconduct studies found that about 14 percent of responding scientists reported having witnessed falsification by others—and 2 percent confessed (anonymously) to having been involved in fabrication, falsification or modification of data themselves.

An inquiry into scientific misconduct often leads to research disruption, evidence confiscation and lengthy meetings, all of which can add up quickly in terms of expenses such as faculty and staff labor. A typical case might run in the neighborhood of half a million dollars, concluded the authors of the new case study, led by Arthur Michalek of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y. Taking as an example a real case from their own institution, they estimated the direct costs of that instance of misconduct to be about $525,000.

Michalek and his colleagues break down the costs into three categories: fraudulent research (grants, investments and equipment), investigation (faculty, personnel and external assistance) and remediation (loss of current or pending grants and others in the affected lab). These calculations don’t take into account other potential costs (such as lawsuits and loss of future funding) and intangibles (such as loss of trust, demoralization of associates and any research conducted on the basis of fraudulent results).

In the case of the example at their institution, the researchers estimated that the most expensive aspect of the internal investigation was the demands on faculty, who spent hundreds of hours assessing the case both during and outside of formal meetings.

The new policy forum paper does not aim to be a universal measure of misconduct costs. "Our experience will likely not be wholly representative of other institutions," the researchers noted, acknowledging that their estimates thus far "amount to a ‘best guess’ scenario."

By their calculations, however, the 217 U.S. cases of misconduct reported to the OIR in 2009 would add up to more than $110 million each year. And the actual rate of misconduct remains uncertain, "owing largely to its clandestine nature as well as to the problem of underreporting," the researchers noted.

Steps to avoid wrongdoing in the first place—such as education, training, mentoring and monitoring—are not free either. But, Michalek and his colleagues estimate that, "the costs of these proactive activities pale in comparison to the costs of a single case of scientific misconduct."

Image courtesy of iStockphoto/damircudic

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  1. 1. Freethinking for God 7:11 pm 08/17/2010

    What is that expressed as a fraction of "scientific conduct"?

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  2. 2. JamesDavis 9:46 pm 08/17/2010

    It sounds like your whole system needs restructured and rebuilt. Maybe you should up the standards on the candidates you choose for this kind of work and get that politically correct bull-shit erased from your school. Start only allowing the highest IQ’s and the highest grade scores. If you don’t start doing something real fast to correct this problem, you are going to end up hurting a whole bunch of people and they are going to sue your ass off. So let these people scream whatever they want to scream; only accept the best of the best and that may stop these idiots from destroying your credentials.

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  3. 3. SurrealWorld 10:07 pm 08/17/2010

    When there are high stakes many will resort to cheating. The highest IQ and grade scores don’t predict honesty and integrity… There are all to many highly intelligent psychopaths – who have been quite successful in their careers – business, science, and politics among others….

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  4. 4. SurrealWorld 10:08 pm 08/17/2010

    Unfortunately, when there are high stakes some will resort to cheating. The highest IQ and grade scores don’t predict honesty and integrity… There are all too many highly intelligent psychopaths – who have been quite successful in their careers – business, science, and politics among others….

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  5. 5. SurrealWorld 10:10 pm 08/17/2010

    Ugh – I corrected errors – too … and changed many to some… but it printed the original. Sorry.

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  6. 6. scientific earthling 11:54 pm 08/17/2010

    JamesDavis: The highest IQs and the highest grade scores do not segregate the psychopaths from the rest of the community. Most of our large companies require you to be a psychopath to fill in the top executive rolls. Some of the best contributors to our material progress had low IQs and did not perform well at school. I am currently reading "The Man Who Knew Infinity" He could not pass his university exams and did not know he had to sleep under blankets to keep warm.

    Problem is a lack of hindsight based responsibility for published works and depositions. The scientists who claimed asbestos and cigarettes were benign have never been asked to justify their claims and punished after they have been proved wrong. Same is true of business funded researchers currently trying to sell us the benefits of large populations and that the coming climate change is not the result of human activities. Global warming has not jet started-the ice has to melt first (think of a drink kept cool with ice).

    In Australia we are presented with a ratio of people above 65 against those under 65 to justify increasing our population, The ratio is small since the population profile is not pyramid shaped. Death rates in the younger age groups have been drastically reduced. Importing more people will result in a larger older population in a few decades requiring a lot more imports of young people. It is a ponzi scheme. If you want the ratio of over 65s to under 65s to be as it used to you must restore the pyramid shaped population profile. Shut down health care and the hospital system or learn to live in a zero growth society – the only way to keep our species from extinction.

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  7. 7. Bionate 3:27 am 08/18/2010

    While I agree that there needs to be an oversight process to protect academic integrity and credibility. Peer review works reasonably well. Additionally, unless it can be proven academic dishonesty has taken place I don’t think there should be punishment. No matter how good the data scientists can be wrong. In fact, many advancements are dependent upon falsification of conclusions from other scientists.

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  8. 8. ironjustice 8:03 am 08/18/2010

    I suppose this is going to be a very uphill battle. Recent research has shown a lack of morality in those who have no ‘religious’ affiliation and so the curbing of fraud in a group of low morals is going to be HARD. Imho.

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  9. 9. tichead 10:42 am 08/18/2010

    And we wonder that people are in denial about climate change and the age of the earth…

    I heard a report on NPR some years ago that studies estimated about 1 in 4 people have no sense of right and wrong. Given the tremendous amount of money spent on research, 14% probably isn’t so bad afterall. Peer review, repeatability, verifyablity, mentoring, and monitoring seem to drop the potential for fraudulent research by about 10%. If the those five steps were applied to ALL research the fraud rate would likely drop even more. It would be interesting to know how the numbers break down if corporated/private research is compared to academic/public research. But that would take more research, and, then who would do it; corporations or universities?

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  10. 10. jtdwyer 11:11 am 08/18/2010

    See Jan Hendrik Schön, briefly renowned physicist and prolific author in the fields of condensed matter physics and nanotechnology. He was hired by Bell Labs in 1997.

    "In 2001 he was listed as an author on an average of one research paper every eight days[2]. In that year he announced in Nature that he had produced a transistor on the molecular scale. Schön claimed to have used a thin layer of organic dye molecules to assemble an electric circuit that, when acted on by an electric current, behaved as a transistor. The implications of his work were significant. It would have been the beginning of a move away from silicon-based electronics and towards organic electronics. It would have allowed chips to continue shrinking past the point at which silicon breaks down, and therefore continue Moore’s Law for much longer than is currently predicted. It also would have drastically reduced the cost of electronics."

    Plenty of peer review for those articles. Journal editors commented that he work for a highly respected laboratory and had excellent credentials… Its interesting that no mention was made of Nature’s role in publishing bogus research.

    The insistence that new research be expressed within the context of recently published works multiplies the impact of any published fraudulent or erroneous research.

    What would the cost be, for example, if the original research leading to the Dark Matter hypothesis was found to be in error? It is, after all, still unidentified and unproven. Following the resulting chain of references produced by forty years of published research would produce an enormous list of work in astrophysics, cosmology and particle physics.

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  11. 11. Quinn the Eskimo 1:17 am 08/19/2010

    Yes, misconduct. Like, say, Climategate?

    Global Warming and its 9 Trillion$ fix?

    Yeah, we got that. Some time ago.

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  12. 12. tichead 11:13 am 08/19/2010

    jtdwyer: Same goes for string theory. I hope the Large Hadron Collider isn’t about to suffer from the same problems. We could sure use a Higgs boson sometime soon. I can seed the headlines now: "Muti-billion Dollar Hole in Ground is Empty. No Higgs Found. Standard Model Collapses From Fraud"

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  13. 13. jabailo 6:24 pm 08/19/2010

    The Global Warming guys alone must cost us a few bill.

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  14. 14. jabailo 6:41 pm 08/19/2010

    Seen any black holes lately?

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  15. 15. jtdwyer 9:08 pm 08/19/2010

    I’ d bet my $2 that they will discover at least one more generation of Fermions (particles of matter). I predict this because I suggest that the additional mass attributed to each generation of Fermions (Quarks, Electrons and Neutrinos) is simply an artifact of the higher velocity achieved by varying accelerator technologies.

    No Higgs Boson exists if mass is an external configuration of emission energy manifested in conjunction with the particle state of material energy, just as emission energy is configured to linearly propagate the alternate wave state of material energy. In this scenario mass/propagation energy dissipates upon collision along with the velocity imparted by accelerator equipment, except for the residual energy applied to the momentum of disintegrated sub-particles rarely if ever occurring in nature.

    That’s my guess anyway – gen IV Fermions & no Higgs boson. Higgs got his guess and his prediction.

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  16. 16. debu 8:39 am 08/20/2010

    We are in great confusion and a true sense of knowledge and judgement can save us from unscientific growth of absurd visual cosmology on old theories and too much theoretical physics. Please read ETHER-GRAVITY=DARK ENERGY THEORY OF GRAVITOETHERTONS AND BALLOON INSIDE BALLOON THEORY OF MATTER AND ANTIMATTER UNIVERSE OH OPPOSITE ENTROPY PATH PUBLISHED IN ASTRONOMY.NET IN YEAR 2002.

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  17. 17. tichead 1:20 pm 08/20/2010

    All sarcasm aside, you would likely win that bet. Even if no Higgs are detected, I don’t think it would that bad. Inconsistencies in the Standard Model are the reason we have to consider such strange and untestable entities such as ‘dark matter’. Even if the Higgs is verified, many of the inconsistencies would still exist. If the Standard Model failed because no Higgs bosons exist, then the new model to emerge could be more elegent and useful. However this all plays out, I believe that the implications of the LHC results are so fundamentally world changing, and involve so many physicists with careers at stake, that the risk of misconduct and fraud is very, very, low. At the same time, due to the large population of participants and extrordinary volume of data that needs to be interpreted mistakes are sure occur.

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  18. 18. jtdwyer 6:40 pm 08/20/2010

    tichead – I never bet more than I can afford to lose…
    I wouldn’t take bets on what fraudulent manipulations of public trust have already been employed to gain approval for LHC construction. There will be an overwhelming desire among all of those scientists to discover results justifying its costly construction…

    In the meantime, the most exciting discoveries will be of unexpected events, if they are lucky enough to be noticed by all those searching for expected results. Lets hope it’s all worthwhile and truly advances our correct understanding of the universe.

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  19. 19. stratos 8:29 am 08/21/2010

    Identify the source of the ‘conclusions’ you assert. Such an assertion, unless actually supported with sound (key word) research, merely contributes to misinformation. I call "bunk" on this one.

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  20. 20. John_Toradze 5:09 pm 08/21/2010

    The solution to research misconduct is simple. I speak from having been a whistleblower watching it happen and helping others file complaints.

    A. Replace the supine Office of Research Integrity (ORI) with an agency under DOJ. The current office avoids investigating anything it can.

    B. Use current laws to convict and imprison PIs for defrauding the federal government. If the feds gave the money and the research is fraudulent, that is criminal fraud. PIs also submit plagiarized grants, you name it, they do it. Current penalties are, at worst, a slap on the wrist.

    C. Eliminate the self-policing research integrity and complaint offices at universities. Replace them with offices paid for by university funds, but staffed by DOJ personnel who report to DOJ.

    E. Be very careful to distinguish research fraud from mistakes or from technical violations of other regulations like biosafety. (A certain PI springs to mind.)

    These steps will fix the problem.

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  21. 21. tichead 8:37 am 08/23/2010

    John_Toradze: Excellent. Real and practical improvement ideas. I am not sure what PI stands for; public institution or private institution?

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