The cost of misconduct

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A report detailing the supposedly meagre costs of scientific misconduct has set off an online discussion about the real toll of shoddy science. Academics are also talking about a study on a subject that many know all too well: the hardships of life off the tenure track.

Using the records of the US government's Office of Research Integrity (ORI), researchers led by Ferric Fang at the University of Washington in Seattle collected studies funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that had been retracted because of misconduct from 1992 to 2012. All told, the NIH had spent about US$58 million on these projects, less than 1% of its total budget over this time. On Google+, mathematician Joerg Fliege at the University of Southampton, UK, did what he does best: the maths. “Multiply this figure with 100 if you believe that only 1% of misconducts get detected,” he posted. “Still not much of an expense, in the overall scheme of things.”

In a follow-up interview, Fliege said that the small cost of retractions suggests that “the scholarly system of self-correction works appropriately,” at least in the field of health and medicine. This is no reason to become complacent about fraud, he added. “Every single case is one case too many.”

On the Facebook page of The Incubator, a blog run by writers and researchers at Rockefeller University in New York City, science librarian John Borghi wrote “Fraudulent research accounts for a very small percentage of NIH's budget. Unfortunately, the damage caused by fraud goes far beyond wasted grant money.”

In a comment posted on the Retraction Watch blog, David Fernig, a biochemist at the University of Liverpool,UK, was less encouraged by the findings. He said that the $58-million figure must be an underestimate because only a “very small fraction” of US misconduct cases ever get reported to the ORI. He also noted that any dollar amount misses the “human cost” of misconduct. Writing on his own blog, he said that fraudulent lab practices are especially hard on young researchers who must decide whether to blow the whistle or turn a blind eye. “Some students and postdocs will accept the poison of misconduct ... since this allows them to progress their careers,” he wrote. “The human cost here is that we train charlatans, who go on to teach and train other young people.”

Fernig also wrote that a fraudulent paper can “send a whole bunch of people ... barking up the wrong tree”. He recalled that as a postdoc, he once tried to replicate the results of a study published in a top-tier journal, only to discover later that the reported data had been misinterpreted, making it impossible to repeat the experiment.

The study authors noted that fraudulent clinical findings can also be harmful to patient health — citing the case of a now-discredited 1998 paper that incorrectly suggested a link between childhood vaccinations and autism (A. J. Wakefield et al. Lancet 351, 637641; 1998). That paper, they wrote, “helped to dissuade many parents from obtaining vaccination for their children”. They ended their own paper with a caveat: “Although we estimate that only a very small percentage of NIH grant dollars has been spent on research misconduct, the indirect costs to society are likely to be substantially greater.”

Stern, A. M., Casadevall, A., Steen, R. G. & Fang, F. C. eLife 3, e02956 (2014)

In a study that hit close to home for many commenters, a pair of American psychologists used online surveys to gauge the mental state of non-tenure-track lecturers in the United States. Although the lecturers' overall scores for stress, depression and anxiety fell in the normal range, they reported many on-the-job frustrations, including a lack of security, low pay and large workloads. “SURPRISE! #adjuncts are poor and tired and stressed, says SCIENCE,” tweeted Marcie Bianco, an adjunct English instructor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

The surveys uncovered some noteworthy trends. Mental distress was greater among those who were hoping to land tenure-track positions and among those who felt especially committed to their jobs. That last finding caught the attention of Yoni Appelbaum, a non-tenure-track history lecturer at Babson College in Massachusetts. He tweeted: “In most workplaces, the most committed workers are happiest. For non-tenure track faculty? Commitment adds to stress.”

Reevy, G. M. & Deason, G. Front. Psychol. (2014)

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