Fraud and Intentional Deception in Scientific and Academic Research
‘Oh what a tangled web we weave
When first we practise to deceive.’
(Sir Walter Scott, ‘Marmion’)
Instances of fraud in academic and scientific research are on the rise. Whether this trend is attributed to publishing competition and pressures, problematic reward systems for scholarly work, current technologies that make fraudulent practices so easy or similar technologies that render the detection of research fraud more effective, the consequences are disastrous. Discovery lies at the heart of scientific and academic research, and fraudulent results that have been fabricated or falsified for publication completely undermine this ideal. Researchers must be able to rely on the work of their colleagues and peers as authentic and factual research that can be used, cited, replicated and developed. When fraudulent work is disseminated and read as serious research, time and funds are often wasted not only by publishing teams, but also by other researchers as they pursue, sometimes repeatedly, what will ultimately prove the unprofitable paths indicated by the fraudulent research – time and funds that could have been better spent conducting research of real value for resolving genuine problems. When research fraud is detected in published documents, retractions and other disciplinary actions usually ensue, and publications that relied on the fraudulent data may become as redundant and even as tarnished as the publication that created the problem.
To make matters worse, in some cases (such as research related to public health or social programmes) the problems under investigation are serious issues that affect real lives and communities. There have been in recent years some truly abhorrent instances of fraud in academic and scientific research that have demonstrated a complete disregard not just for research integrity and scholarly standards, but for society as a whole and particularly those individuals whose lives might instead have been improved by honest investigators engaged in authentic research. The publicity surrounding the worst cases of fraud in academic and scientific research casts a poor light on all professional researchers, but one that might prove constructive in the long run if it successfully calls attention to the seriousness of fraudulent research practices and reminds academics and scientists of some of the many compelling reasons why it is so imperative to avoid fraud in their own research.
Although definitions of fraud in academic and scientific research vary, there are two activities that always arise in discussions of research fraud:
1. The fabrication of research processes, data or results in formally published academic and scientific documents. This might involve adding only a few fabricated results from a single experiment that was never actually done in order to support genuine results that would not on their own make a persuasive case for a researcher’s hypothesis or argument. On the other hand, an entire research project could be fabricated, with the methodology, results, figures, tables and other elements of the publication created in a fictional way or borrowed and adapted from other sources, but none of the research and analysis actually done by the author or authors who publish it.
2. The falsification of research processes, data or results in formally published academic and scientific documents. Instead of completely making up or combining borrowed bits of information, perpetrators guilty of falsifying research data usually alter (sometimes a little; sometimes considerably) or otherwise ‘cook’ the results they obtain through their genuine research in order to arrive at findings more in line with an immediate goal. That goal may be to support a particular hypothesis, fit the publication preferences of a high-impact journal or meet the needs of a private funding body, with images and other evidence being manipulated to achieve the desired results.
Plagiarism is often discussed along with these forms of fraud in academic and scientific research, and rightly so. Plagiarism is borrowing or stealing the words, ideas, data, images, results, interpretations, argument or other intellectual property of another author or researcher without properly acknowledging it. Whether the theft is intentional or not, it is still plagiarism, but when plagiarism is intentional, it is a form of fraud – consciously and deliberately publishing the work of another under the fraudulent assumption that it is your own work. Intention is a key issue in the other two kinds of fraud I describe above as well. Although it may seem impossible to fabricate or falsify research data unintentionally, many a researcher accused of fraud has claimed that no deception was intended and the misconduct detected in their work was accidental, specifically the result of errors, excessive zeal, negligence or inexperienced students and assistants. In some cases the claims might be true: images may be manipulated, for instance, with the primary goal of improving the clarity of findings for readers, but with the unintentional effect of misleading them. This kind of defence makes for slippery ground, however, since academic and scientific authors are responsible for the integrity and validity of every aspect of the research they publish. Safer ground lies beneath the feet of those researchers who remain honest and conscientious in their work, following the ethical guidelines of their institutions and publishers to produce authentic research that will have immediate and lasting value for editors, readers and society as a whole.
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