Scientists under Pressure
February-2017 (by by Jana Rieger)

It seems that the topic of research misconduct is popping up all over the media these days. And it's not related to some unknown scientist working in an obscure basement laboratory. No, the media is filled with high-profile cases of research fraud committed by 'successful' researchers. The crème de la crème. The thought of a scientific great being accused and proven guilty of research misconduct leaves us all feeling a little uncomfortable; no one expects that scientists will lie. But they do. The question is why. 

In my newly-finished novel, A Course in Deception, I explore the many facets of academic life that may lead scientists to lie. For now, let's focus on the POP principle - publish or perish. I learned fairly quickly in my early years as a scientist that your worth is based largely on the number of publications listed on your CV (curriculum vitae - essentially your résumé). Oh, the sting you felt when you didn't get a research grant because a reviewer thought your CV wasn't impressive enough. Never mind the stress associated with building your CV to get a promotion. 

The pressure to POP could lead the weak to do whatever it takes just to stay in the game. This includes making up data. As an example, Dr. Andrew Wakefield published fraudulent data on the relationship between childhood vaccinations and the development of autism. Not only did he dupe the public, but also 12 other authors who were listed on the original research paper and who claimed not to know that he was faking it. So why did they have their names on the paper in the first place? It likely comes down to the POP principle once again, as was outlined in a BMJ editorial published 5 years ago on Dr. Andrew Wakefield. In the editorial, scientists are warned that "the satisfaction of adding to one's CV must never detract from the responsibility to ensure that one has been neither party to nor duped by a fraud. This means that coauthors will have to check the source data of studies more thoroughly than many do at present..." (BMJ 2011;342:c7452,p.65). 

There will be some very heady things to consider for the future when considering research fraud. First, who should be the watch dog? Second, can we change the incentive system for scientists so that things like the POP principle don't influence behavior?

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