Two-thirds of researchers responsible for recent cases of scientific misconduct in the life sciences are male, according to a new study (1). Across all career stages, and from 1994 to 2012, men are overrepresented in misconduct cases when compared to the percentage of men in the field. The new analysis is the first to look at differences in misconduct rates between the genders, and adds to a growing collection of data that aims to explain who commits scientific fraud and why.
Previously, Fang and his collaborators studied what causes scientific papers to be retracted. In the process, they examined the details of many misconduct cases. Anecdotally, it seemed that many of the cases revolved around male scientists.
But the researchers wanted to know if men were truly overrepresented in misconduct, or if the numbers simply reflected a higher percentage of men in academia. “It’s always a good thing to actually have hard numbers to know what you’re dealing with instead of just anecdotal impressions,” said Fang.
The team turned to data from the US Office of Research Integrity, which provided details on 228 misconduct cases over the previous 12 years. They parsed the data by career stage—students, post-doctoral fellows, research personnel, and faculty members—since each has a different gender balance. Overall, 65% of the misconduct was attributed to men. Among faculty members, 88% of the cases were committed by men, who make up less than 70% of the total population of scientists.
In addition to showing that men were overrepresented, the new paper highlighted the fact that more misconduct (32%) was attributed to faculty members than students (16%), postdocs (25%), or other research personnel (28%). Assumptions are often made that research fraud is more common among students because of their inexperience or pressure to obtain a job. Because of this idea, many efforts to combat misconduct are aimed at student and postdoc populations. But the new results suggest that such efforts could be misguided.
“We’re just providing the simplest of facts based on the best data we could obtain, and there’s still much to be done to try to understand these numbers,” said Fang.
Further sociological research is needed to reveal what factors may be at play in the gender imbalance. And much data is still lacking because scientists accused of misconduct infrequently speak publicly about their cases, Fang said.
“I think there’s still a paucity of detailed information on these cases,” said Fang. “You can gather superficial pieces of information like we have, but it doesn’t tell you what really motivated someone to do something.”
Fang FC, Bennett JW, Casadevall A. Males Are Overrepresented among Life Science Researchers Committing Scientific Misconduct (2012). mBio 4:1 e00640-12.
Over a twelve year time period, more cases of misconduct were attributed to males than females. Source: mBio.asm.org