WASHINGTON, June 8 (UPI) -- The first large-scale survey of scientific misconduct suggests a significant proportion of U.S. scientists routinely engage in questionable behavior, such as altering data due to pressure from funding sources, that threatens the integrity of scientific studies.
The self-reported survey did not attempt to link the behaviors to specific incidents, so it is unknown whether they have led to faulty research that poses any threat to public health. Nevertheless, the fact that the behavior is occurring is worrisome in itself, said the study's lead author, Brian Martinson of HealthPartners Research Foundation in Minneapolis.
Such behavior undermines the scientific process and "could be very damaging," Martinson told United Press International. They could lead to "misuse of public monies" as well as fostering an environment that lacks integrity, he added.
The consequences could be less important than addressing the root cause of the behavior.
"I don't think we have to ask (if) they are causing the scientific record to be less than it should," Martinson said. "We should be asking what kind of aspects in science are fostering this and are there ways of addressing them to make this better."
Paul Tate, dean in residence of the Council of Graduate Schools in Washington, praised the study for attempting to quantify the issue but said it already is a known problem and efforts are under way to address it.
With funding provided by the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Research Integrity, the CGS plans to give awards to 10 different institutions to develop pilot programs to teach graduate students responsible conduct in research, Tate said.
The hope is, "If we make a greater effort to educate graduate students, misconduct will be reduced as a result," Tate told UPI. Often, graduate students do not receive much guidance in this area and they may be confused about the appropriate response when these issues arise, he explained.
He said although the prevalence of the behaviors described in the study is alarming, it probably does not pose a major threat to the general public.
"I don't see any great threat to public health or national security because of some impending degeneration in the nation's science -- although I am alarmed when scientists are discovered to have cheated," Tate said.
In the study, which appears in the June 9 issue of the British journal Nature, Martinson and colleagues surveyed more than 3,200 scientists who had received grants from the National Institutes of Health. The scientists' identities were kept anonymous to help ensure honest and accurate responses.
Approximately 33 percent of those surveyed admitted to one or more behaviors deemed by outside experts at research universities to be serious infractions.
About 15 percent said they had changed the design, methodology or results of a study in response to pressure from a funding source. About 6 percent reported failing to present data that contradicted their previous research, and nearly 8 percent said they had circumvented minor aspects of human-subject requirements. Another 12 percent acknowledged overlooking others' use of flawed data or questionable interpretation of data.
A number of respondents also reported engaging in behavior considered less serious, but which still posed a threat to scientific integrity. Nearly one-third, or 27 percent, admitted to keeping inadequate records related to research projects. Approximately 15 percent dropped observations or data from analyses based on a gut feeling the data were inaccurate.
The apparent widespread prevalence of such practices constitutes reason for concern, Martinson said, noting previous investigations of science misconduct focused on clear-cut fraud and found it to be uncommon, suggesting it was not worrisome.
"The prevalence of the behaviors we see here should cause us to say that's a level of behavior out there that cannot simply be the actions of a few bad apples," Martinson said.
Martinson and his co-authors of the Nature article contend that competition for limited research grants may account for much of the problem.
"In ongoing analyses, not yet published, we find significant associations between scientific misbehavior and perceptions of inequities in the resource distribution processes in science," they wrote.
Correcting the situation may require the involvement of universities, the federal government, professional societies and scientific journals, Martinson said, but he cautioned, "It would be dangerous for a single university to try to address this, because they would put themselves at a distinct disadvantage" regarding competition for grants and other resources with other universities.
Arthur Caplan, director of University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics, said some of the behaviors could be controlled through regulatory actions, while others needed to be addressed through supplemental education efforts, such as the pilot program being launched by the CGS.
Audits of records and data by the NIH also could be a way of keeping the behaviors in check, Caplan told UPI.
Steve Mitchell is UPI's Medical Correspondent. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org