‘Machiavellian’ scientists more likely to commit research fraud

If lab misconduct is linked to personality traits, there is a case for assessing these when hiring scientists, say researchers

October 12, 2016
Two researchers conducting a lie detector test on a young woman
Source: Getty
Screening test: taking a ‘more multidimensional angle in selection/hiring criteria’ could prevent ‘bad apples’ from entering academia

Niccolò Machiavelli was unlikely to have been thinking about scientific misconduct when he wrote “one who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived” in The Prince.

But according to a new study of biomedical scientists, a Machiavellian attitude is linked with poor conduct in the lab, leading researchers to suggest that universities should gauge applicants’ personalities when making hiring decisions.

The survey of 535 researchers from four university medical centres in the Netherlands revealed that a significant minority of scientists admitted to severe misconduct.

About 5 per cent admitted to selectively deleting or changing data to confirm a hypothesis. Seventeen per cent said they had decided whether or not to exclude data after looking at the impact it would have on the results.

And one in five said they had reported an unexpected finding as having been hypothesised from the start, according to “Personality Traits are Associated with Research Misbehavior in Dutch Scientists: A Cross-Sectional Study”, published in Plos One.

This misconduct correlated with a Machiavellian personality – defined as a “tendency to be unemotional, detached from conventional morality and hence inclined to deceive and manipulate others, to focus on unmitigated achievement, and to give high priority to their own performance” – the researchers found. Narcissism and psychopathy, which was also tested for, were not found to be associated.

Co-author Joeri Tijdink, a postdoctoral researcher at VU University in Amsterdam, acknowledged that Machiavellianism explained only a small part of the variation in levels of research misconduct between respondents.

But he argued that universities needed information on researchers’ personalities when filling a role. “If we take a more multidimensional angle in selection/hiring criteria for (top) positions”, this could prevent “bad apples” from entering academia, he told Times Higher Education.

If Machiavellianism – or some other form of cynical personality – is to blame for misconduct, rather than honest error or unawareness of proper standards, this could call into question the effectiveness of rectifying training courses for offenders.

In one previous attempt to tackle this question, Donald Kornfeld, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, looked at the circumstances of nearly 150 researchers who had committed misconduct and found that their breaches were “the results of individual psychological traits and the circumstances”.

“Therefore, a course in research misconduct, such as is now federally mandated, should not be expected to have a significant effect,” he wrote.

These latest results back up his assessment that scientific fraud is the “product of a combination of individual personality traits and an intense fear of failure, or the lure of academic and/or financial rewards”, the authors write.

But universities may be reassured to learn that the study also found that biomedics are no more likely to have “Dark Triad” traits – Machiavellianism, psychopathy and narcissism – than the general population.


You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most Commented

University of Oxford students walking on campus

University of Oxford snatches top spot from Caltech in this year’s World University Rankings as Asia’s rise continues

Home secretary says government will support 'best' universities

Man handing microphone to audience member

Academic attainment of disadvantaged students can be improved if they can decide how they are assessed, study claims

Italy's gold medallist

New measures to ensure universities are ‘not penalised’ for taking poorer students also outlined for next stage of TEF

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir meeting over coffee

Claims for genius require more than repeated assertion to make the case, says Martin Cohen