Researchers urge funders and institutions to crack down on false investigators

Authors who falsely add colleagues to grant applications attract 70% more funding, according to a recent analysis.

  • Dalmeet Singh Chawla

Credit: ajijchan/Getty Images

Researchers urge funders and institutions to crack down on false investigators

Authors who falsely add colleagues to grant applications attract 70% more funding, according to a recent analysis.

19 October 2021

Dalmeet Singh Chawla

ajijchan/Getty Images

The illegal inclusion of false investigators on grant proposals and research papers should be classified as research misconduct, according to Eric Fong, co-author of multiple studies on the practice.

The most recent paper, published in Research Policy in September, found that researchers who listed false investigators on grant applications attracted 70% more funding, on average, over a five-year period.

The findings were based on anonymous responses to a survey of more than 10,000 researchers at 200 leading universities in the United States.

False investigators are those whose names are included on grant applications, but who intend to offer little or no input to the subsequent work if the grant is made. An earlier study based on the same data found that more than one in five survey respondents — 2,217 researchers — admitted to adding false investigators to their grant proposals.

Of those, more than 60% said they did this because they believed leveraging the reputation of the false investigator would increase their chance of winning the grant.

But that is misguided, says Fong, who studies research management at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. The latest analysis found that adding false investigators does not affect the chance of individual grant proposals being accepted.

It’s likely that those who list false investigators attract more funds because in the long run they tend to submit more grant proposals overall, the new study found.

Around 13% of those who admitted to naming false investigators said they did so because they felt obliged to add people in positions of power, such as a lab director or a department chair. Almost 8% said the false investigator was a mentor and around 1.5% said it was a colleague for whom they wanted to do a favour.

The issue of false investigators has been paid insufficient attention by finders and institutions, says Fong, perhaps because it has been considered a grey area and they have focused instead on addressing practices such as falsification and fabrication of data.

Sanctioning those guilty of adding false investigators won’t be enough to solve the problem, says Michael Reisig, a criminology and criminal-justice researcher at Arizona State University in Phoenix, whose 2020 survey found that gift authorship is the most common type of research fraud in the US.

Instead, a more integrated approach is needed, says Reisig, where universities police the issue themselves and funding agencies report the extent of the problem in their periodical updates.

A spokesperson for the British umbrella funding body, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), told Nature Index that until now, there has been little evidence about the extent of the practice of false investigators. “This paper makes an important contribution to the evidence base.”

UKRI is currently accepting applications for founding members of a committee to champion research integrity in Britain, in line with the recommendations of a 2018 parliamentary inquiry into the issue. “Part of the remit of the new UK Committee on Research Integrity will be to further develop the evidence base, and we will consider their analyses and evidence, such as this paper, to help us to address issues in the UK’s research and innovation system,” said the spokesperson.

“In academia, many people are evaluated on the grant dollars that they get,” says Fong. Given that people who add false investigators apply for more grants, and get more funding overall, failing to quash the practice runs the risk of it becoming commonplace, putting people who are not engaged in the fraud at a disadvantage, he adds.

In 2020, Fong co-authored another study on the legal consequences of adding false investigators, which made the case that adding false investigators to grant proposals to United States federal agencies is illegal under the False Statements Act.

Many other countries that fund research through the state, such as Germany, Canada and the UK, have similar laws to the US, and make similar statements to the US False Claims Act.

“Researchers seeking funding in countries with such laws who are adding false investigators to their proposals may be unintentionally committing a crime,” Fong and colleagues write.