Criminologists scrutinise academia in wake of scientific scandals

Scientific misconduct increasingly studied as example of ‘occupational crime’, researcher says

April 1, 2016
Pencil eraser erasing text from paper
Source: Alamy

Recent scientific scandals have prompted a surge of interest from criminologists into the “occupational crime” that occurs in universities.

Normally concerned with more visible problems such as theft and violence, criminologists are beginning to look systematically at the pressures that nudge academics towards scientific misconduct, according to a researcher whose analysis has painted a depressing picture of academic honesty in Europe.

Rita Faria, a lecturer in criminology at the University of Porto, told Times Higher Education that her colleagues across the Continent are now increasingly scrutinising science in the wake of high-profile fraud scandals such as that of Diederik Stapel, a Dutch social psychologist who admitted fabricating multiple datasets.

When she started her research career, criminology about research was “very sparse”, she said. But “in the past [few] years, there’s been a more enhanced interest in the topic,” she explained.

“We normally think about street crime, drugs and such,” Dr Faria said, but pointed out that scientific misconduct could be studied alongside other types of white collar or “elite” crime, sometimes called “occupational crime” because it occurred as part of a job.  

Scientific misconduct has been neglected by criminologists because there are no official statistics tracking its regularity; offenders often have high status in universities and there is “no identifiable victim who can complain”, she explained.  

Dr Faria said that her research into academic misconduct used to be lumped into the “miscellaneous” section at conferences.

But at the latest gathering, she was part of a five-person panel discussing the issue. Part of her PhD research into the problem was published last year in a special edition of a Dutch criminology journal dedicated to scientific misconduct.

Dr Faria interviewed 22 academics from across Europe – from Portugal, the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland – and found them deeply disillusioned with the incentives facing researchers.

Constant pressure to win grant money and secure their careers through publishing had left them with ambivalent attitudes to some forms of misconduct, she said.

While “most” agreed that fabricating data was wrong, “subtle” trimming of data to get desired results and self-plagiarism were “not always considered to be unacceptable behaviour”, reported her paper, “Scientific misconduct: how organizational culture plays its part”, published in the Dutch journal Cultuur & Criminaliteit.

One scholar quoted in the paper admitted: “There are some people that have to have their name in anything that is published in the department, even when they have done nothing.”

Dr Faria concluded that, faced with pressures to publish that led to dubious practices, the interviewed academics had developed four “strategies” to cope with their environment: “acceptance”, “resistance”, “fitting in” and “giving up”.

In the fallout from recent science scandals, there had not been enough attention given to the organisational culture and pressures that enabled misconduct to happen, she told THE. “It’s always easier to look at the individual, the offence…than to grasp [an understanding of] the environment,” she added.

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