Study: Forces drive research plagiarism

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Two years ago, the journal Nature reported a startling spike in the number of scientific research papers that were being retracted.

Between 2000 and 2010, the number of papers retracted shot up tenfold, while the total number published climbed only 44 percent, the journal reported.

Most of the papers were pulled because of honest mistakes or failure to replicate results, but nearly half were withdrawn because of outright cheating -- falsification of results or plagiarism from another researcher.

In that sense, the allegations last week that Jay Kolls, a Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC researcher, had misused results from another lab falls into a growing pattern around the nation.

PG chart: Rise of the retractions in science journals
(Click image for larger version)

But in another sense, it is highly unusual, said Ferric Fang, a microbiology professor at the University of Washington who has studied research misconduct.

While plagiarism often is committed by younger researchers desperate to get ahead, this case involves a highly experienced scientist supposedly using the unpublished research of a young doctoral student.

"It's very surprising to me because if the misconduct he is accused of actually occurred, it would be very easy for him to be found out. It just looks very shocking for such a senior investigator to make a mistake like that," Dr. Fang said.

Recent research he's done suggests the number of papers being retracted is leveling off, Dr. Fang said, but the bigger problems that have driven the increase in scientific misconduct still exist.

He pointed to at least three issues: scientists chasing increasingly less research money, too much emphasis on individual achievement even though most research today is done by groups, and heavy reliance by universities on research grants to pay for faculty salaries.

After a big increase in biomedical funding about 15 years ago, the National Institutes of Health's budget in real dollars has declined over the past decade and is particularly tight now because of the federal budget sequester. At the same time, the percentage of initial basic research grants approved has plummeted over the past 50 years, from about 60 percent in 1963 to less than 20 percent in 2010.

In his field, Dr. Fang said, only about 6 percent of grant applications are approved, and in that climate, "you have to find some way of standing out and you're going to grab any piece of data you can and put the best face on it -- and that's not conducive to honesty in some cases."

Another problem in the field, he said, is the practice of giving most of the credit on research to the lead author and the senior author on each paper, which devalues the contributions of the other listed researchers.

Most research is done now by groups, he noted, "and I think we need to look more at how we can celebrate each other's achievements. I think we've drifted to a culture where there's too much emphasis on careerism."

Finally, the major increase in NIH research funding from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s spurred many universities to rely heavily on grant money to pay much of the salaries of new faculty members. Now that the funding has begun to decline, scientists at major research schools like the University of Pittsburgh are under increasing pressure, Dr. Fang said.

That can set the stage for potential misconduct, he said, because "behavioral economists will say there is no stronger motivation for cheating than trying to avoid losing something. It's more powerful than trying to gain something."

The psychology of cheating

Researchers also are more likely to cheat if they think their colleagues are doing so, Dr. Fang added.

Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School who used to work at Carnegie Mellon University, studies this behavior.

Using a series of clever experiments, she and her colleagues have found that people are much more likely to cheat if they observe someone else doing it, especially if they feel a connection to that person.

In one study at the University of North Carolina, she offered students money for solving math problems using an honor system.

Unbeknownst to the participants, they sat next to an acting student who would stand up early in the experiment and say, "I've solved everything. What should I do?" Knowing he couldn't have solved all the problems that quickly, the other students were thus encouraged to cheat.

But then, Ms. Gino and her colleagues added a twist. In some cases, the proctor told the students that they shared a birth month and school year with the actor; in others, they were told they had a different birth month and school year than he did.

Of the students who were told they didn't share characteristics with the actor, 29 percent claimed they answered more questions than they did; but of the ones who were given even the tenuous connection of a shared birth month and school year, 65 percent cheated, she writes in her new book, "Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan."

"When we face moral dilemmas," she said in an interview, "I look at it as having an angel or devil on our shoulders, and sometimes in the moment either the angel or devil can be more salient. In the case of seeing other people cheat and having connections to those people, we sort of use that as a signal that what we are about to do is OK because they're doing it too."

Psychology also explains why researchers are more likely to think others will cheat than they will.

In a 2009 study, Daniele Fanelli of the University of Edinburgh reported that several anonymous surveys of scientists had found that 1 percent of them acknowledged they had cheated on their research, but they said that 14 percent of their colleagues had. About a third of those surveyed also said they had engaged in "questionable research practices," such as exaggerating data, but they said that 72 percent of their colleagues had done that.

When there is a case of scientific misconduct on a campus, it causes both direct and indirect costs, said Arthur Michalek, former graduate dean at the University of Buffalo.

Using a real-life case he helped investigate at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, Dr. Michalek said that when he costed out the hours of work faculty members put into the inquiry along with other expenses, it came to more than $500,000. If that is typical of most investigations, he said, it means the roughly 200 misconduct cases that are reported each year to the federal government would cost their schools about $110 million.

On top of that, he said last week, "there are certain costs that are impossible to calculate -- the damage to the reputation of that institution or that research group is incredible. All you have as a scientist is your reputation; it's impossible to do research if you don't have credibility."

Research misconduct also damages public faith in science.

"The lay person reads the articles about these incidents and says, 'Here we go again. Another case of an overpaid investigator committing fraud.' And this is important in an age when federal research funding is always being reviewed," he said. "If the average taxpayer sees money being misused, he'll be much less likely to call his Congressman to speak in favor of research funding."

A silver lining is that even now, scientific misconduct seems to involve only a tiny minority of scientists. But the ones who do commit fraud or plagiarism can have a disproportionate impact on public perceptions.

"Today, I still think the majority of scientists are in the field because they love science," Dr. Michalek said.

"But I think there are some individuals who are talented but for some reason take shortcuts. Science is much more lucrative than it ever has been; they can see potential payoffs, career enhancements, patents and private money."

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Mark Roth:, 412-263-1130 and on Twitter: @markomar.


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