Tuesday, 2 June 2009

How many scientists fabricate and falsify research?

Press release from PLoS ONE

It's a long-standing and crucial question that, as yet, remains unanswered: just how common is scientific misconduct? In the online, open-access journal PLoS ONE, Daniele Fanelli of the University of Edinburgh reports the first meta-analysis of surveys questioning scientists about their misbehaviours. The results suggest that altering or making up data is more frequent than previously estimated and might be particularly high in medical research.

Recent scandals like Hwang Woo-Suk's fake stem-cell lines or Jon Sudbø's made-up cancer trials have dramatically demonstrated that fraudulent research is very easy to publish, even in the most prestigious journals. The media and many scientists tend to explain away these cases as pathological deviations of a few "bad apples." Common sense and increasing evidence, however, suggest that these could be just the tip of the iceberg, because fraud and other more subtle forms of misconduct might be relatively frequent. The actual numbers, however, are a matter of great controversy.

Estimates based on indirect data (for example, official retractions of scientific papers or random data audits) have produced largely discrepant results. Therefore, many researchers have asked scientists directly, with surveys conducted in different countries and disciplines. However, they have used different methods and asked different questions, so their results also appeared inconclusive.

To make these surveys comparable, the meta-analysis focused on behaviours that actually distort scientific knowledge (excluding data on plagiarism and other kinds of malpractice) and extracted the frequency of scientists who recalled having committed a particular behaviour at least once, or who knew a colleague who did.

On average, across the surveys, around 2% of scientists admitted they had "fabricated" (made up), "falsified" or "altered" data to "improve the outcome" at least once, and up to 34% admitted to other questionable research practices including "failing to present data that contradict one's own previous research" and "dropping observations or data points from analyses based on a gut feeling that they were inaccurate."

In surveys that asked about the behaviour of colleagues, 14% knew someone who had fabricated, falsified or altered data, and up to 72% knew someone who had committed other questionable research practices.

In both kinds of surveys, misconduct was reported most frequently by medical and pharmacological researchers. This suggests that either the latter are more open and honest in their answers, or that frauds and bias are more frequent in their fields. The latter interpretation would support growing fears that industrial sponsorship is severely distorting scientific evidence to promote commercial treatments and drugs.

As in all surveys asking sensitive questions, it is likely that some respondents did not reply honestly, especially when asked about their own behaviour. Therefore, a frequency of 2% is probably a conservative estimate, while it remains unclear how the figure of 14% should be interpreted.

Contact: Dr Daniele Fanelli
Citation: Fanelli D (2009) How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Survey Data. PLoS ONE 4(5): e5738. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005738


Constituting Neurologic Subjects: Neuroscience, Identity and Society after the ‘Decade of the Brain’

Are we are brains? Certainly, new research in the neurosciences is providing compelling evidence to suggest that much of what we think, say and do is governed by the brain, at least in part. Through their work, not least of which are powerful imaging studies, neuroscientists provide new ways of understanding ourselves, social relations, and societies. In so doing, the 'new brain sciences' are contributing to longstanding debates concerning free will, morality, and madness. Increasingly, neuroscience research is filtering into other domains and discourses, challenging existing practice and animating new social engagements and relations. Accordingly, social theorist Nikolas Rose has suggested that 'we' have now become 'neurochemical selves' (Rose, 2007: 188), understanding thought, feeling and behaviour as being mediated through the workings of the brain.

Rose's formulation captures well the broad shifts in identity that the meta-narratives of neuroscience and the psy-sciences have entrained. Anthropologist Joseph Dumit (2004) and sociologist Kelly Joyce (2008) have likewise examined some of the cultural practices associated with neuroimaging in particular. It is becoming clear that neuroscience is not a twenty-first century phrenology: neuoscientific narratives about personality and behaviour align somatic and societal registers in sophisticated ways which render problematic simplistic critiques of ‘reductionism’ or ‘determinism’ (Pickersgill, 2009). Yet, there are clearly a number of ‘gaps’ in our understandings of the complex interactions between neuroscience and society that need to be explored. In this project, funded by the ESRC, we (in collaboration with Dr Paul Martin, University of Nottingham) seek firmer analytic purchase on these important issues through empirical work examining the positioning of a range of publics (including neuroscientists themselves) towards neuroscience.

Methodologically, this 11 month project employs documentary analysis and focus groups to reach an understanding of the range of subject positions assumed by publics in relation to neuroscience. Extending Sarah Cunningham-Burley’s work on science and publics, and Martyn Pickersgill’s research into the links between psychiatry and neuroscience, this investigation charts the constitution of neurologic subjects by exploring the shifting understandings of expertise and identity engendered by neuroscience. In the process, we seek to ground theoretical discussion about neuroscience in empirical reality, and create a new vantage point from which we can better engage with the ethics and politics of this potentially transformative science.

Martyn Pickersgill and Sarah Cunningham-Burley
Public Health Sciences Section, College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, University of Edinburgh


Dumit, J. (2004) Picturing Personhood: Brain Scans and Biomedical Identity, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Joyce, K. (2008) Magnetic Appeal: MRI and the Myth of Transparency, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Pickersgill, M. (2009) ‘Between Soma and Society: Neuroscience and the Ontology of Psychopathy’, BioSocieties, 4, 1, 45-60.

Rose, N. (2007) The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century, Princeton: Princeton University

Reducing our carbon footprint: can selective animal breeding help?

Innogen Research Fellow, Ann Bruce has been awarded an ESRC grant:

Mitigating the environmental impact of cattle and sheep: animal genetics and farmers' readiness for uptake

Global warming is often thought as being caused by energy production but the second largest contributor is animal production, with methane produced by cows and sheep a key component. One obvious solution is to reduce meat and milk consumption but this is unlikely to be acceptable to everyone. Moreover, grass-fed animals (such as cows and sheep) can provide other benefits than food, such as managing biodiversity. The UK has a good climate for producing grass and many of the upland regions of the UK cannot be used for cultivating anything other than grass. Grazing animals therefore provide the backbone of many rural communities.

A range of different animal breeding technologies (including but not limited to genetic modification) could be used to mitigate the global warming impact of farm livestock, but adoption of these may be limited by willingness of farmers to purchase these replacement breeding animals. The aim of this project is to:
  • understand how farmers reach decisions on where to source replacement breeding animals
  • understand how the whole system of producing replacement breeding animals impacts on the decisions made by farmers
  • evaluate what changes could be made to encourage the uptake of animals bred for reduced global warming impact

This project will identify key factors that influence the uptake of animals bred for reduced global warming impact. By working in collaboration with a key animal breeding technology transfer body (Genesis Faraday Partnership) this project will be working directly with the people who would be in a position to act on the knowledge created in this project and influence how breeding technologies could be used to mitigate the global warming potential of farm animals.

This project will run from January 2010-Decemebr 2011. For more information, please contact Ann Bruce.

Cross-national technology regulation in Africa

Dr Julius Mugwagwa has won a very competitive and prestigious Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship. Julius will be working on 'Cross-national technology regulation in Africa' and the abstract below captures the essence of the project:

'Building on methodologies and theoretical insights from the doctoral study, the proposed fellowship seeks to make an original and innovative contribution to understandings of how policies and regulatory systems for innovations spread across countries with the mediation of supranational organisations and other trans-national policy actors in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). This will be done through a multi-level comparative analysis of processes towards cross-national governance frameworks for biotechnology/biosafety policies and medicines control regulations in southern, eastern and western Africa'

For additional information about this project, please contact Julius.