The unfair sex: men 'are behind most research misconduct'

Male scholars more likely to succumb to temptation as pressure to publish increases. Paul Jump writes

January 31, 2013

Men may be over-represented in the upper echelons of the academy, but a study has revealed that they are even more disproportionately represented in the annals of research misconduct.

The findings are based on a study of 228 misconduct cases dealt with since 1994 by the US Office of Research Integrity, which polices publicly funded research in the life sciences.

The study - carried out by Ferric Fang, professor of microbiology at the University of Washington; Joan Bennett, associate vice-president for the promotion of women in science, engineering and mathematics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey; and Arturo Casadevall, chair of the department of microbiology and immunology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York - finds that men at every level of the academy are more likely than women to commit misconduct.

However, the greatest disparity is observed among faculty members. Men make up about 70 per cent of faculty members in the life sciences but account for 88 per cent of research miscreants.

The number of female faculty members committing research misconduct was three times less than would have been expected based on their overall numbers.

Among postdoctoral researchers, 61 per cent of whom are male, 69 per cent of offenders were men. Men also accounted for 58 per cent of misconduct cases involving students, even though just 45 per cent of students in the life sciences are male.

The paper, “Males are overrepresented among life science researchers committing scientific misconduct”, published in the journal mBio, notes that men are known to be more likely to engage in risky behaviour.

However, it avoids the temptation to “explain the preponderance of male fraud in terms of various evolutionary theories about Y chromosome-driven competitiveness and aggressiveness”, adding that it might simply be that female miscreants are less likely to be detected.

Professor Fang told Times Higher Education that, in his view, women were better able than men to resist the temptation to cheat: “[But] whether that is due to nature or nurture or both, I cannot say.”

Pressure at the top

Of the misconduct cases examined in the paper, 16 per cent involved students, 25 per cent involved postdoctoral researchers and 32 per cent involved faculty members. This belied the authors’ expectation that misconduct would be more prevalent among junior academics because of the pressure on them to publish in order to advance their careers.

“You might think that as scientists go up the career ladder, they would feel more secure. But the bigger the lab you run, the more grants you need, which increases the pressures to publish and the temptation to cheat,” Professor Casadevall said.

The paper says that training in research ethics, which is typically concentrated on early career researchers, should be provided to faculty scientists, who “in some cases are directly responsible for misconduct and in others may be unintentionally fostering a research environment in which trainees…feel pressured to tailor results to meet expectations”.

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