This week the scientific world was buzzing about “The Mind of a Con Man,” a New York Times Sunday Magazine story about a well-known European psychologist who had committed fraud in at least 55 of his papers, as well as in 10 Ph.D. dissertations written by students. Just as troubling was the finding that his fraud had gone undetected for so long because of “a general culture of careless, selective and uncritical handling of research and data.” The story also cited other recent well-publicized cases and trends: a well-known South Korean stem-cell researcher, a prominent Harvard evolutionary botanist, numerous instances of bad behavior and retractions uncovered by the Office of Research Integrity and a blog called Retraction Watch.
That story coincides perfectly with this month’s Cerebrum feature, “Sound the Alarm: Fraud in Neuroscience” by Stephen G. Lisberger, Ph.D., the chair of the Department of Neurobiology at Duke and chief editor of Neuroscience. Lisberger’s story addresses the problem of scientific misconduct specifically in neuroscience from someone on the frontlines in both the academic and publishing worlds. The story posted today.
How prevalent is fraud? A recent study in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences analyzed more than 2,000 retracted papers and the calculation of a tenfold rise in retractions over the last decade in Nature, a leading scientific journal. In neuroscience, Lisberger calls what has been so far been detected as “only the tip of the fraud iceberg.” He discusses the nature, detection, and incentives for fraud, and suggests reforms: “Journals and institutions alike are stakeholders,” writes Lisberger. “Both stand to lose if fraud continues, and both should play proactive roles in detecting and thereby removing the incentives for fraud. We, as scientists, should reduce our admiration of ‘high-profile’ publications and evaluate scientists for jobs, promotions, grants, and tenure on the basis of what they have done rather than where their research has been published.”
He recommends that misconduct be addressed more often and more deeply, i.e., in lab meetings, faculty meetings, ethics courses, and national meetings. “By putting fraud under the light and developing a strong structure for its detection, we can reduce it dramatically, even if we will never be able to eliminate it altogether,” he writes. But he also reminds us that as bad as the news has been of late, it is important to remember that “most scientists conduct their research irreproachably.” And he warns that we need to be careful not to assume that fraud has occurred “just because there’s been an accusation.” After all, neuroscientists—like others accused in our justice system—should also be assumed innocent, until proven guilty.
– Bill Glovin