The F words: Fabrication and Falsification of Data
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), scientific misconduct consists of circumstances when an investigator fabricates or falsifies data or plagiarizes material from other sources. This definition of fraud is virtually identical to the one proposed by Charles Babbage, written nearly two centuries ago, when he employed the more moderate terms such as hoaxing, forging, trimming, and cooking. Some ethicists consider the “F” words, fabrication and falsification, to be more serious crimes than plagiarism, since scientific research ultimately depends on data integrity and honesty.
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Explore This IssueJuly 2013
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How common are these problems? A study published in 2005 found that approximately one-third of American biomedical scientists reported engaging in some level of research misconduct during the previous three years.5 The researchers surveyed 3,600 mid-career and 4,160 early-career scientists, all of whom received some funding from the NIH. In descending order, the respondents admitted to: changing the design, methodology, or results of a study in response to pressure from a funding source (15.5%); short-cutting minor aspects of human-subjects protection requirements (7.6%); failing to present data that contradicted the researcher’s own previous research (6.0%); the unauthorized use of confidential information (1.7%); using another’s ideas without obtaining permission or giving credit (1.4%); and falsifying research data (0.3%). Although respondents to this study were kept anonymous, the true frequencies of data falsification and fabrication remain difficult to determine. Investigating systematic scientific fraud is time consuming, costly, and often a politically challenging process.
The effects of fraud in clinical medicine can be particularly deleterious, owing to a catastrophic domino effect. Patients may be exposed to treatments that are based on false premises. Younger investigators discover that they devoted their academic careers to work with highly successful investigators who turn out to be fraudulent researchers. Dwindling financial resources are totally wasted. There is considerable collateral damage.
The P Word: Plagiarism
Compared to fraud and data fabrication, the damage caused by plagiarism remains significant but more limited in scope. Recently, researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas created a web server, eTBLAST, and an affiliated database called “Déjà vu” that can scan the entire Medline database to detect potentially plagiarized manuscripts.6 In one study, they examined a sample of over 62,000 Medline citations, and a database of manually verified duplicate citations was created to study author publication behavior. The researchers found that 0.04% of the citations with no shared authors were highly similar and thus considered to be potential cases of plagiarism and 1.35% with shared authors were sufficiently similar to be considered a duplicate. Extrapolating this data, the authors estimate that there are about 120,000 duplicate citations listed in Medline. The researchers sent anonymous questionnaires to the duplicate authors suspected of plagiarizing. Of these, 28% denied any wrongdoing, 35% admitted to having “borrowed” previously published material (and were generally apologetic for having done so), and 22% were from coauthors claiming no involvement in the writing of the manuscript. An additional 17% claimed they were unaware that their names appeared on the article in question. Perhaps plagiarism has become, for some, the research version of identity theft.