My opinion

By Dr. Ulysses P Albuquerque
Corresponding Author Dr. Ulysses P Albuquerque
Universidade Federal Rural de Pernambuco, - Brazil
Submitting Author Dr. Ulysses P Albuquerque

Ethic in Science, Plagiarism, Peer-Review Process, Fraud, Falsification, Fabrication

Albuquerque UP. Scientific Misconduct. WebmedCentral BIOETHICS 2011;2(2):WMC001617
doi: 10.9754/journal.wmc.2011.001617
Submitted on: 25 Feb 2011 02:16:20 AM GMT
Published on: 25 Feb 2011 10:22:45 PM GMT


Abstract: Plagiarism, fraud and falsification are issues modern scientists must confront. These problems themselves are not novel, but the discussion surrounding them has been revitalized due to recent, widely reported events. In order to keep the discussion of these topics active, and because misconduct is an important educational topic for all scientists, I will briefly discuss the current situation.
Keywords: Ethic in Science; plagiarism; peer-review process..


The scandal surrounding the fraudulent publication of stem cell findings has been exhaustively discussed by the press, and the theme of scientific misconduct is now in the spotlight [1]. More than simply revealing that fraud, plagiarism and falsification of data occur, the primary effect of this event was to taint the public image of science. Scientists are commonly perceived as almost infallible, and news surrounding their misconduct, which is often disseminated in an alarmist or sensationalist manner, can contribute to a humanization of science and scientists.
We can wonder what would make a scientist deliberately behave in an unethical manner. Undoubtedly, the pressure to publish has increased in recent years. The well-known aphorism, “publish or perish,” was never so true as it is for modern scientists. It is necessary to publish in order to a) obtain research funds, b) progress professionally, and c) become recognized by peers. Competitiveness could be blamed for misconduct, but this would be a very simplistic argument [2]. In this article, I will examine the issues surrounding misconduct with the aim of contributing to the current debate. I will divide the topic into two questions: First, what are the types of scientific misconduct, and second, how frequent is misconduct?
What are the main types of misconduct?
Several behaviors can be considered scientific misconduct, and plagiarism is perhaps one of the most common transgressions. It is a common phenomenon and frequently committed unconsciously, which can occur when the plagiarist commits a serious ethical infraction while being unaware they are doing so. Chart 1 contains an adapted definition of plagiarism by Lucas [3], which will allow us to better clarify the extent of the problem.


How common is scientific misconduct?
Several authors have tried to answer this question (see [6]), most frequently using surveys and questionnaires. An obvious limitation of this method is that many people might not be willing to admit misconduct. It is perhaps easier to say that they have heard about misconduct or know somebody who has committed misconduct rather than acknowledging their own faults. Regardless of this limitation, the results of these studies are very interesting. In one of the most recent analyses, Fanelli [7] carried out a study on how frequently scientists fake or create data. The work of Fanelli [7] is the first meta-analysis to analyze several surveys taken on the issue of scientific misconduct. To summarize the findings, it was more common for scientists to admit to having changed data to improve results than to admit to having publishing admittedly falsified data. In addition, a significant number of scientists admitted to having observed misconduct among their peers. On average, 1.97% to 33.7% of scientists admitted to having created, falsified or modified data or to having behaved in a questionable way. Although misconduct is a sensitive subject, as are the techniques used to of evaluate scientists’ conduct, these data show that the problem exists.
Final considerations: is this a new witch-hunt?
Although I believe that educational and restrictive measures are necessary to avoid misconduct, it is necessary to be careful not to create a culture of distrust, to assume all researchers are guilty until the contrary can be proven. First, it is extremely difficult for editors and reviewers to detect certain types of misconduct; second, we cannot punish honest researchers. A lack of reflection and caution can lead to biased revisions and criticisms, based on suspicion rather than facts. Mutual trust is one of the fundamental qualities of professional relationships between scientists. The assumption of misconduct in published data would undoubtedly impact this relationship negatively. Conducting a witch-hunt, that is, reporting and disclosing the gravest cases of misconduct, can be productive and even necessary, especially when the data of a fraudulent publication impacts public policies. However, I believe many innocent individuals would be consumed in the effort to reveal these serious infractions. Therefore, I believe the best strategy to avoid scientific misconduct would be to educate and orient new scientists to their ethical responsibilities. This would be an educational strategy based on the understanding of science as a product of human intellect and on managing one’s career in such a manner that one can tolerate the pressure to publish without resorting to misconduct. Perhaps a better saying would be, “publish without perishing”!


The author thanks Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico-CNPq (the Brazilian Research Council) for a productivity grant.


1. Albuquerque, U.P.  The tyranny of the impact factor: why do we still want to be subjugated? Rodriguesia 2010, 61, 353-358.
2. Albuquerque, U.P. A qualidade das publicações científicas: considerações de um Editor de área ao final do mandato. Acta Botanica Brasilica 2009, 23, 292-296.
3. Lucas, S.E. The art of public speaking.  The McGraw-Hill Companies: New York, USA, 2003. 512p.
4. Long, T.C.; Errami, M.; George, A.C.; Sun, Z.; Gamer, H.R. Responding to possible plagiarism. Science 2009, 323, 1293-1294.
5. Errami, M.; Sun, Z.; Gerge, A.C.; Long, T.C.; Skinner, M.A.; Wren, J.D.; Garner, H.R. Identifying duplicate content using statistically improbable phrases. Bioinformatics 2010, 26,  1453-1457.
6. Marshall, E.  Scientific misconduct - How prevalent is fraud? That's a million-dollar question. Science  2000, 290,  1662–1663.
7. Fanelli, D. How many scientists fabricate and falsify research? A systematic review and meta-analysis of survey data. PLoS ONE 2009, 4(5), e5738. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005738.

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Scientific Misconduct
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