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Scientists Who Cheat and What to Do About It


Cheating in scientific and academic papers is a longstanding problem, but it is hard to read recent headlines and not conclude that it has gotten worse.


The New York Times (NYT) has today recently (June 1, 2015) published an editorial “wringing its hands” at the seeming epidemic of cheating in scientific research that has come to light, partly thanks to the efforts of the writers of “Retraction Watch”, a blog that is only a few years old.

The editorial concludes that part of the answer to the problem of cheating in research is more research, that is studies to determine how common the problem is, “how much harm it causes, and how best to combat it.”

The editorial also recommends, as a starting point, the release of all underlying data of every research project that comes to publication– to peer reviewers, for a start.  Underlying data should be available to interested parties, preferably in a central repository of data points for all relevant research.

The editorial recommends increased funding for the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) to allow it to investigate “all major cases that come to its attention” and to give it “sufficient independence.”  Other authors have cited the ORI for its lack of transparency and its delay in making investigations.  Still others have objected to the ORI’s lack of stringent sanctions; typically the penalty for irregular research is a three-year suspension of research grants.  Some suggest that offenders should be forced to pay back all or a portion of the money granted for the offending research, possibly a harsh penalty when the grant involves payments for multiple grantee’s salaries and equipment as well as fees for outside surveys and so on.

The proposal to perform more research into the prevalence of cheating, its causes (whether “publish or perish”, career promotion, or simple dishonesty) and the degree of harm that is done to real research, is a good way to determine what is really going on and how serious the problem is.

Finally, the proposal to “do more research” is a good one in any case.  Our budgets for research of all kinds should be dramatically increased.  There is little that cannot be improved by performing more research into all areas of science, and a great deal to be learned everywhere.  The only caveat is that we need to have a clear idea of what we do not know in order to turn our questions towards what we can learn that will make our lives better and longer.

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