"Scientific Misconduct: Do the Punishments Fit the Crimes?"

August 13, 2008

DETROIT - A new study of scientists who have been found to have falsified, plagiarized or even fabricated their research reveals that many of them eventually return to laboratory work, exploding the commonly held belief that such unethical behavior effectively ends their careers.

The study, entitled "Scientific Misconduct: Do the Punishments Fit the Crime?" and published this month in the internationally respected magazine Science, was co-authored by Wayne State University College of Nursing Dean Barbara K. Redman, PhD, RN, FAAN, and Jon F. Merz, PhD, J.D., MBA, associate professor in the Department of Medical Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

The two used public records to identify 43 scientists holding advanced degrees who were found guilty of misconduct by the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI) between January 1994 and December 2001. The investigators found that all of them were banned from Public Health Service advisory boards, two-thirds were excluded from grants and contracts, and about half were subjected to institutional oversight. Overall, the wrongdoing researchers each received an average of 2.5 sanctions; 14 were forced to retract or correct their papers.

"We examined each of their cases, searched for studies they had published before and after their ORI decision and attempted to locate these people to interview them and see if the findings had caused changes in their careers," Dr. Redman says.

They located 28 of the 43 individuals through various sources. Of the 23 who worked for universities at the time of their misdeeds, 10 were still in academia and eight others had moved to positions in industry. Of the interviews Drs. Redman and Merz were able to conduct - many of the scientists either refused to respond or said they wished to put their pasts behind them - most reported they still had useful careers in science after the initial blows to their reputations.

"Of course, this is just the tip of a very large iceberg, but it is significant for many reasons," says Dr. Redman. "We found, for example, that half of the people found to be guilty of misconduct continued to publish an average of one paper per year after their cases were decided. Had they learned their lesson, or should the validity of their subsequent research be called into question?

"Also, it seems those who committed plagiarism were most likely to rebound professionally, which makes sense. As opposed to fabricating or falsifying data, which can do real harm to science and the scientific community, stealing someone else's work is simply unethical."