Research Integrity: The Who, and Why Researcher's 'Cut Corners'

By Chuck Dinerstein, MD, MBA — Jul 14, 2021
Are open methods, open data, and access are essential requirements underlying transparency. But are they enough to establish the integrity of research? How frequent is “research misconduct,” and what factors would encourage such behavior? A new study reaches some tentative conclusions. 
Image by fredy martinez enamorado from Pixabay

The study is based on the National Survey on Research Integrity done in the Netherlands involving 6,800 respondents. Of course, there is uncertainty to the quantified findings; after all, if you have been guilty of misconduct, you might also be ashamed enough not to report it – so take the numbers as lower limits. The survey asked for reports of fabrication or falsification of data, clearly misconduct, as well as “more subtle trespasses of ethical and methodological principles that can undermine the validity and trustworthiness of studies.” 

Of the 22 academic centers asked to participate, only eight promoted the survey among its faculty. Roughly 10% of the 63,000 surveys were fully completed across all disciplines. Let’s begin with the good news, the prevalence of responsible research behaviors.

  • Avoiding plagiarism – 99%
  • Disclosing conflict of interest – 96.5%, although we have seen that conflicts of interest are often subjectively evaluated
  • Error checking before publication – 94.3%

Then there would be the less frequently observed responsible practices

  • Preregistration of study protocols – 42.8%
  • Making underlying data accessible – 47%

The top-five questionable research practices (QRPs): 

  • Not submitting or resubmitting valid negative studies for publication – 17.5%
  • Insufficient inclusion of study flaws and limitations in publications – 17%
  • Insufficient mentoring or supervision of junior co-workers – 15%
  • Insufficient attention to the equipment, skills, or expertise – 14.7%
  • Inadequate note-taking of the research process – 14.5%

Respondents in life and medical science were the biggest offenders. Of more significant concern is clear research misconduct, where roughly 4.3% admitted to either fabrication or falsification of data.

While these numbers are disappointing, they are not surprising. Science is another human enterprise and is subject to the same strengths and weaknesses we all share. Perhaps more important than simply identifying the prevalence of these bad behaviors is understanding the underlying drivers. 

  • Ph.D. candidates and junior researchers were more likely to admit to QRPs. This did not carry over to an increased likelihood of falsification or fabrication.
  • Publication pressure, perhaps a confounder with being a Ph.D. candidate or junior researcher, also increased QRPs. To a lesser degree, funding and competitiveness increased bad behavior. “Publish or perish” is not simply a phrase; it is a reality, especially for those yet established in academia. 
  • Promulgation of scientific norms, peer norms, and organizational justice – all measures of the culture within an academic institution – were associated with fewer QRPs. 
  • Not surprisingly, the fear of being caught by your colleagues also diminished the prevalence of QRPs. Being caught by outside reviewers, i.e., peer review had no effect

“The prevalence of any frequent QRP was 51.3% which suggests that “sloppy science” may be more prevalent than previously reported.”

If it is indeed sloppy science, then part of the responsibility falls upon the senior staff who are providing “insufficient” mentoring or supervision. Some staff find the dual accountability for their research and teaching challenging and choose to emphasize the extrinsic productivity measures that bolster their reputation rather than the intrinsic rewards of teaching.

One of the most common arguments used in our public debate over scientific studies is that the funding comes from corporate interests. It is a fair observation. But, to my mind, this study points to a similar perverse incentive in academia, the pressure to publish or perish. There are only so many tenured positions, only so much funding to be split amongst a substantial population of almost PhDs and newly minted researchers. This study goes a long way in making the effect of those perverse incentives explicit. Bad behavior is not restricted to one group or another.


Sources: Prevalence of questionable research practices, research misconduct and their potential explanatory factors: a survey among academic researchers in The Netherlands MetaArXiv Preprints

Prevalence of responsible research practices and their potential explanatory factors: a survey among academic researchers in The Netherlands MetaArXiv Preprints


Chuck Dinerstein, MD, MBA

Director of Medicine

Dr. Charles Dinerstein, M.D., MBA, FACS is Director of Medicine at the American Council on Science and Health. He has over 25 years of experience as a vascular surgeon.

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