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Study indicates that scientific fraud may have a male bias

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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A few weeks back I blogged about a paper by Arturo Casadevall, Ferric Fang and others from the University of Washington and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine that investigated retractions in scientific publications and concluded that the majority of retractions could be traced to misconduct, with the majority of misconduct in turn arising from fraud.

Now in a recent study, the same authors hone in on some of the details of misconduct and unearth another interesting gem; they find that men are more likely to engage in misconduct compared to women. And yes, this is true even when you correct for the overrepresentation of men over women in academic research.

The authors look at 215 cases of fraud in life sciences research uncovered by the Office of Scientific Integrity (OSI). They were able to determine the gender of the perpetrator in all but one of the cases, and 65% of the wrongdoers were male.

Gender distribution of fraudulent researchers over time (Image: Feng et al.)

What was also interesting was that the misconduct depended on the rank of the researcher; it seems that 88% of faculty members committing fraud were men, compared to 69% of postdocs and 58% of students.


Male fraud by research level (Image: Fang et al.)

This is perhaps not too surprising. Students and postdocs are much more worried about their future career prospects compared to tenured professors and less likely to jeopardize them. However the conclusion is not as obvious as it seems since pressure to publish or perish and other factors can also drive students and postdocs to engage in fraud; two prominent cases in the last couple of years make this clear. Based on their findings that fraud among faculty members is much more likely to be centered on men, the authors don’t discount the possibility that female scientists might be committing fraud on an equal basis but may be escaping detection.

The real question of course is why men are much more likely to commit fraud. It’s one of those classic nature vs nurture dilemmas with nurture seeming to play the dominant role. The authors cite studies reflecting higher crime rates among men compared to women, but cultural factors are likely to play a much greater role in the academic world. As the authors state, data on cheating among students is rather inconclusive with respect to gender, so it’s likely that there’s something about the peer-based research environment that contributes to this behavior. It’s generally accepted that the cut-throat arena of scientific research often discourages women from pursuing research careers. Gender bias in hiring is increasingly being validated as a contributing factor. So is the inability of the academic system to properly take the burdens of pregnancy and childcare into account. But all this simply explains the paucity of women scientists at the highest levels of academia, not why they would be less likely to commit fraud.

Or does it? The authors hint at something which I think may be a clear reason for the reluctance of female scientists to commit fraud; the censure of the scientific community. The same pushback from a male-dominated scientific hierarchy that thwarts women at every stage of their scientific career likely makes them much more sensitive to criticism. With the result that they are far less likely to invite an unfavorable response from a predominantly male community by engaging in misconduct. Thus it might be female scientists’ acute awareness of possible condemnation – ironically engendered by an unhealthy male-dominated environment – that might be keeping them more honest than the men. This of course does not mean that we let the unfavorable environment persist, but it does mean that we need to have other disincentives for fraudulent research.

This is a relatively small study that raises many more questions than it answers; what would the findings be for other sciences? Are there certain areas of research that seem to be more inundated with male fraud? Does the percentage of male fraud depend on other factors like nationality, tenure, and the funding situation? However, all these factors may be less important than possible solutions. The authors point out that current ethics courses are mainly targeted toward students and postdocs while the preponderance of fraudulent faculty members in the study points to a much greater need for instructing professors in the ethics of research and publishing. The data seem suggest a certain laxity in behavior that might accompany tenure and a stable academic job. At the same time the findings may again illuminate the intense pressure and battles for funding that often tempt academic scientists to stray from the righteous path. Ultimately, studies like this may put the spotlight more on the dysfunctional aspects of our current academic research system rather than simply on gender bias.


Males Are Overrepresented among Life Science Researchers Committing Scientific Misconduct

Ferric C. Fang and Joan W. Bennett and Arturo Casadevall, mBio, 4, 1, e00640-12

Ashutosh Jogalekar About the Author: Ashutosh (Ash) Jogalekar is a chemist interested in the history and philosophy of science. He considers science to be a seamless and all-encompassing part of the human experience. Follow on Twitter @curiouswavefn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. lynnoc 7:46 pm 01/22/2013

    A not surprising finding, for some of the reasons the author is suggesting. The bias against women in science is still disturbing –and we lose a lot when we lose the voice and thinking of women, including research thinking. Women, because of stereotype threat, don’t end up in tenured positions as often, many don’t get the status they deserve. But why are tenured, seasoned men committing fraud, faking their data etc.? I have a theory (just a theory, certainly not empirical at this point, though maybe we should study it) that some (even many?) high status men in science may get bored, they feel they have to pursue the research that’s being funded (the moving target), they lose their intrinsic motivation, their passionate drive. They no longer love their work, they have their graduate students doing it for them when possible (though the students are rarely aware of the fraud until late in the game). Consequently research of these high ranking men, suffers. They feel guilty and ashamed (yes men feel these emotions too), and get into a spiral that leads to lab deception. My conclusion: The need to go for the moving target, the financial support (both private and public) in order to maintain their labs at all, may be wrecking their ability to pursue their shifting interests. Researchers often take surprising turns, particularly when they follow their own interests, questions. Our system of funding may make that almost impossible, and we end up with scientists committing deception. It’s sad, and when I hear of someone in trouble for fraud, someone I have admired, it disturbs me. But I don’t just blame the scientists, there is a systemic problem.
    Lynn E. O’Connor, PhD

    Link to this
  2. 2. stargene 1:27 am 01/23/2013

    I am a male amateur-scientist (mainly astronomy related problems),
    and I also have a personal feminist bias. In addition to the probable
    forces mentioned in this article, pushing people (mainly men) toward
    some sort of fraud in science, I suggest that proportionally, those
    women who are scientists, whether or not they’ve fudged their work,
    are by and large pretty exceptional in qualities that make for a
    good scientist, when compared with their male peers. This reflects
    just how hard it still is for any women to succeed at all in the
    sciences… and those who do make it tend to be more talented and
    probably have commensurately more integrity, simply to fight
    their way to their rightful places in what has historically been a
    very male realm.

    A good question, perhaps unanswerable, is: has the fraud in
    sciences been steady over time or is it on the increase, due
    to real increases in social pressures; the very same kind of
    pressures which are at work on university students today and
    eroding the experience they would normally have enjoyed
    in the past? It is also not hard to posit a deeper link
    between such fraud and pressures and the infamous attitudes
    trickling down from higher corporate America leading to
    fraud, theft and an amazing capacity to shun any respon-
    sibilty for the damage done by, say, Wall St. and company.

    Link to this
  3. 3. jtdwyer 6:50 am 01/23/2013

    Surely these conclusions cannot be based on raw numbers, as it appears to be in the charts. If that were the case, I presume that, as in many professions, academic science positions are mostly held by men. If that is the case, then the numbers of males and females caught committing fraud should reflect their distribution in the relevant academic scientific populations.

    If these apparently raw numbers of frauds have not been normalized, than I assert that this research is fraudulent!

    Link to this
  4. 4. kkirkpat 8:54 am 01/23/2013

    As the article states in the third sentence: “And yes, this is true even when you correct for the overrepresentation of men over women in academic research.”

    Additionally, in the original Feng article: “…the proportion of male trainees among those committing misconduct was greater than would be predicted from the gender distribution of life sciences trainees. Males also were substantially overrepresented among faculty committing misconduct in comparison to their proportion among science and engineering faculty overall, and the difference is even more pronounced for faculty in the life sciences.”

    Link to this
  5. 5. jtdwyer 2:13 pm 01/23/2013

    kkirkpat – thanks, but the third paragraph (explaining the first chart) states:
    “The authors look at 215 cases of fraud in life sciences research uncovered by the Office of Scientific Integrity (OSI). They were able to determine the gender of the perpetrator in all but one of the cases, and 65% of the wrongdoers were male.”

    The first chart’s y-axis is labeled “number”, seemingly reinforcing the indication that each of the 215 cases of fraud are represented in the chart.

    That seems to indicate an ‘uncorrected’ presentation of ‘raw data’. The chart appears to indicate that females were responsible for a disproportionate number of frauds if a significant majority of the source population of researchers are male. Regardless of any statements, the data presented does not support the conclusion that males were responsible for a disproportionate number of frauds.

    Link to this

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