Tackle research fraud with ‘fear factor’: psychiatrist

Reassure junior researchers but make senior scientists know they’re being watched, scholar argues

June 6, 2013

As the research community comes to terms with plagiarism, fabrication and falsification being the work of more than just the proverbial few bad apples, one psychiatrist has tried to get to the bottom of why people cheat and what can be done to stop it.

Donald Kornfeld, professor emeritus of psychiatry in the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University, said he believed the trick to addressing the problem was to “decrease the fear” in postgraduate students and postdoctoral researchers and “increase the fear” among academic faculty.

“Some postdocs are going out of their mind, thinking ‘I’m not going to get a job, my wife is pregnant and how are we going to feed the baby?’ These cases [of plagiarism by early career academics] happen because they’re scared. Maybe their work isn’t turning out right and they think what they’re doing isn’t hurting anyone,” he explained.

At the other end of the spectrum, senior academics need to know that they will be subjected to more oversight, he suggested.

Highlighting the case of Diederik Stapel, the now-disgraced social psychologist who was found to have fabricated data, Professor Kornfeld said the Dutch scholar was “so grandiose” that he felt he knew the results before doing the research.

“He said it himself: ‘Why bother with the research if I know what the answer is?’”

Professor Kornfeld’s views are based on his study of 146 individual reports from the US Office of Research Integrity from 1992 to 2003, which was published in Academic Medicine in 2012.

Having examined the individual psychological traits and circumstances involved in each case, Professor Kornfeld suggested that the prevalence of research misconduct – which he calls an “insidious” problem – could be reduced with better mentoring and support for early career researchers.

Good mentorship, in which senior academics know how to spot anxious trainees and help them to deal with stress and expectations, is key, he said. Supervisors should also take more responsibility for the actions of young researchers, he added.

“When it comes to misconduct cases, a question often asked is, ‘Why is it always the postdoc?’ If it is the postdoc, this means the mentor was either not there or was a co-conspirator,” he said.

Organisations tasked with overseeing research integrity, such as the Office of Research Integrity in the US, should note the labs where cases happen and make sure that institutions take remedial steps before they receive more funding for PhDs or early careers researchers, he said.

“Increasing the fear” for more senior staff also means making the penalties for committing fraud in government grant applications more severe, he added.

Professor Kornfeld said he suspected that there were likely to have been many more incidents of defrauding the government than the handful taken to court in the past 10 years. “The question is, why does the Department of Justice not think it is worth its time to prosecute? More criminalisation could have a chilling effect,” he said.

Making it safer for whistle­blowers would also help, he added. Although university rules are supposed to protect them, there are many subtle ways – through lukewarm formal references and negative word of mouth – in which an institution can retaliate.

However, Professor Kornfeld conceded that addressing these matters remains difficult.

Meanwhile, courses in the responsible conduct of research for postgraduate students, increasingly mandated in the US, are unlikely to have any significant effect on reducing misconduct, Professor Kornfeld added. “I’m pretty sure that most of the time when people are doing something wrong, they know it.”


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