Research misconduct ‘not as costly as you might think’

Fears about how much research funding is being wasted on fraudulent projects may be overstated.

August 17, 2014

A study, published this week in the open access journal eLife, found that the amount of National Institutes of Health funding associated with papers retracted for misconduct accounted for less than 0.01 per cent of the agency’s total budget between 1992 and 2012.

The study was carried out by four authors, including Ferric Fang, professor of microbiology at the University of Washington, and Arturo Casadevall, a professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York. Previous investigations by these two authors have revealed that retractions have shot up over the past two decades, especially in high-profile journals, and that most retractions are the result of misconduct.

But their latest paper finds that misconduct rulings by the Office of Research Integrity - which led to 149 retractions between 1992 and 2012 - accounted for just $47 million (£28 million) of NIH funding, compared to a total spend of $452 billion.

The paper admits that misconduct may be far more widespread than the detection rate suggests. But even if only 1 per cent is detected, the cost of funding fraudulent work would still only amount to about 1.5 per cent of the NIH’s total budget.

“In our view, this is still a relatively low number, suggesting that research misconduct does not involve a large percentage of research funding in the US,” the authors say.

However, they note that their analysis does not include other costs of misconduct, such as that of running investigations, damage to the reputation of institutions and lab members, unproductive research by other scientists who have based their work on retracted publications and “preventable illness or the loss of human life due to misinformation in the medical literature”

The paper also finds that researchers found guilty of misconduct typically – though not always – see their funding and publication output subsequently plummet.

This suggests that “an instance of misconduct is not necessarily a career-ending event”, they say.

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