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A New Study on Fraud and Misconduct in Research

Posted  December 5, 2017

By the C|C Whistleblower Lawyer Team

As reported in Inside Higher Education, two professors from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem have conducted a comprehensive study of research fraud from the 1800’s to the present. In their just-published book, Fraud and Misconduct in Research: Detection, Investigation and Organizational Response (University of Michigan Press), Nachman Ben-Yehuda and Amalya Oliver-Lumerman studied roughly 750 cases of research fraud around the globe to understand why it keeps occurring and what can be done to stop it.

The study was prompted by a suspected case of research fraud in their own department which became a big ordeal for the faculty, university and relevant international scientific community. The authors felt “the combination of a sociologist who studies deviance (Ben-Yehuda) who had already worked on the issue of fraud in science, and an organizational sociologist (Oliver-Lumerman), could offer alternative and refreshing theoretical foci to the phenomena we wanted to study. And so the idea of this book was born.”

According to Inside Higher Education, Ben-Yehuda and Oliver-Lumerman argue fraud “is not a major characteristic of science” and that the research industry is generally healthy over all. However, the authors conclude from their study that the fraud in this area is underreported and that stronger regulations should be considered which balance the need to both “curb cheating” and “spur growth in research.”

One of the most important takeaways from the research project was the conclusion that whistleblowers were critical to addressing the ongoing fraud in this area: “it really takes the combination of a whistleblower together with a serious organizational response to detect, expose and treat cases of research fraud.”  Here are some additional takeaways from Ben-Yehuda and Oliver-Lumerman in a brief interview they gave to Inside Higher Education, some of them apparently quite surprising to the authors.

  • Fraud in research reflects a systemic problem and does not reflect only an individual level.
  • The relatively high frequency of cases detected in top institutions was quite surprising. Consequently, one of our conclusions is that fraud in research probably reflects an iceberg phenomenon (e.g., we know only of a small fraction of the cases) rather than a bad apple one (e.g., we know about most of the deviant cases).
  • Quite frequently, when we told colleagues about our research project, again and again they tended to tell us about cases of research fraud that that they knew about yet [that] were not documented in any place we could reach.
  • Institutions which encountered cases of fraud in research have become increasingly transparent about the cases.

As comprehensive as their study is, the authors suspect they were able to detect only a fraction of research fraud cases and did not have full case information for all the cases they did uncover.  They also acknowledged numerous questions in this area that remain unanswered such as whether there are emerging patterns of research fraud; whether new university and journal policies are impacting scientific integrity; and what forms of inter-institutional collaboration can increase norms of research integrity.  Clearly, there is more to come in this area so important to the health and well-being of us all.

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