Intended for healthcare professionals


US survey shows extent of research misconduct

BMJ 2005; 330 doi: (Published 23 June 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;330:1465
  1. Owen Dyer
  1. London

    A third of US scientists have engaged in serious research misconduct in the past three years, according to a survey published in the journal Nature (2005;435: 718-9).

    The findings are based on a postal survey answered by more than 3200 scientists around the United States, all of whom did work funded by the National Institutes of Health. They were asked if they had committed any of a list of 33 transgressions of research standards.

    Ten of these transgressions were identified as serious by a panel of members of research ethics boards. These included questionable relationships with research participants, failing to disclose commercial links, overlooking colleagues' use of flawed data, using other people's ideas without giving credit, and ignoring major aspects of requirements concerning the involvement of human participants.

    A third of the scientists said they had breached at least one of these ethical rules in the previous three years. Less than 1% acknowledged outright falsification of data, but 6% said they had ignored or erased data that would have contradicted the results of their previous research. More than 12% said they had tolerated misuse of data by colleagues.

    Failure to disclose commercial ties was rare—admitted by just 0.3% of the respondents. But more than 15% said they had changed the design or results of a study under pressure from a funding source.

    The study's lead author, Brian Martinson of the Health-Partners Research Foundation in Minneapolis, stressed that the findings did not indicate that a third of science research was flawed by questionable practices.

    “But I think we've shown that it's about more than just fraud, and we shouldn't be looking for a few ‘bad apples.’ It may be that competition in science in this country has reached dysfunctional levels.”

    Dr Martinson said that additional data, yet to be published, indicated a strong link between scientists' perceptions of injustice in the allocation of funding and their propensity to engage in questionable research practices.

    He said, “This is a problem that could get worse. Each scientist is encouraged to build up a research lab with postdoctoral fellows when they get their main NIH [National Institutes of Health] grant. It has been likened to a pyramid scheme, with the youngest scientists effectively being used as cheap labour. These young scientists may find that the grants are no longer there, because the available funds haven't grown at all in recent years.”

    The survey is the first of its kind to focus mainly on medical researchers. The US government's Office of Research Integrity proposed a similar survey in 2002, but the proposal was blocked by several scientific organisations, including the Association of American Medical Colleges. The association said it had not yet had a chance to study the latest findings.

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