‘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
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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.

david.matthews@tesglobal.com

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