Scientists say rules and pressures to produce lead to everyday misbehaviors

A new study reports that ethical lapses occur in daily work

A recent study has found that researchers acknowledge engaging in "normal misbehaviors" in their everyday research life, including abusing post-doctorate students, taking credit when it's not due, culling data based on experience, and shabby documentation.1

"One thing I thought was most interesting is the scientist who was saying, 'We labor under ridiculous rules, and we have to make a judgment: Do we follow this rule even though we think it's ridiculous?'" says Raymond De Vries, PhD, an associate professor in the bioethics program and in the department of medical education at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

"Sometimes, not following the rule is to the more ethical thing to do," De Vries notes.

The scientists also complained about having too many rules to follow and the way sometimes IRBs in requiring informed consent could impede good research.1

One scientist gave this example of a senseless rule: Half of physicians in a department give a particular drug for headaches, and the other half give a different drug. Physicians decided to find out which drug works better.

But when they proposed doing a study to see which drug was better, the IRB required informed consent from all of the patients included in the study, even though they were patients who would be receiving one of the two headache medicines regardless of the research.1

De Vries and colleagues at the University of Minnesota were interested, generally, in the behavior of scientists and how it was related to the environments in which they work. There's always an interest in misconduct and bad apples, De Vries notes.

For example, within the past year, the international media was saturated with reports about South Korean Hwang Woo Suk's fabrication of data in his supposed pioneering work in stem cell research. Other reports of researchers fabricating data also have raised public ire, and condemnation from the research industry.

However, De Vries and other investigators were interested in what goes on below the public media radar screen.

"One of my colleagues, in particular, has been interested in stress in the workplace and how it affects people," De Vries says.

Investigators proposed holding focus groups with scientists to see what they consider their everyday problems in their work, he says.

"We came into the project with the idea that someone needed to pay more attention to the social environment of science, and we weren't going to settle for just looking at misconduct," De Vries says.

Investigators focused on everyday misconducts, as opposed to the big three ethical transgressions of falsification, fabrication, and plagiarism.

"We had a suspicion that there were more things going on than falsifying data and plagiarizing," De Vries says. "And in the focus groups, we discovered that yes, indeed, there were all sorts of things going on that scientists worry about."

Four areas of concern

They divided everyday problems into these four categories:1

1. The meaning of data: this includes dropping outlying results or observations based on a gut feeling that they are inaccurate, and it relates to sloppy record keeping.

2. Rules of science: this involves ignoring minor rules, such as materials-handling policies, and using funds from one project on a different project.

3. Life with colleagues: this includes exploitation of junior colleagues and making it more difficult for some scientists to conduct research based on social relationships with department heads.

4. Pressures of production in science: this involves a scientist changing the study's design, methodology, or results because of pressure from a funding source or the scientist's withholding of data and details in papers and proposals, as well as using another person's ideas without permission.

Scientists were asked to talk about what sort of things could get people in trouble in their line of work, he says. They responded that they were concerned about some of the smaller transgressions, such as not following rules outlined in a grant proposal and handling outliers in data, De Vries explains.

"Do you throw out an outlier if it makes the data stronger?" De Vries says. "Is that unethical, or is it just something you do to make the data stronger?"

The focus group scientists said the rules weren't clear, and they didn't know if they were cheating or not, De Vries adds.

Here were some of the other findings in the focus groups:1

  • One prominent scientist would write lousy letters of recommendation for the research associates he liked so they would stay in his lab, and, alternately, he would write great letters for the people he wanted to get rid of.
  • Research competition sometimes results in investigators taking credit away from colleagues.
  • The pressure to produce and publish can lead to manipulation of the review system, funders exerting undue control over research, conflicts of interest that are unreported, idea theft and grant proposal theft, withholding of data, and ignoring teaching responsibilities.
  • Professors sometimes use the work of graduate students and post-doctorate level people without their permission or giving them attribution.
  • A company funding a study of radiation refuses to fund the study if a particular control group is included, so the professor is caught between the ethics of conducting the study the way he or she believes it should be done or becoming published, which can improve his or her chances of gaining tenure.

The focus group scientists discussed in detail the pressure under which they work, De Vries says. "We heard plenty of stories about how to succeed in science you need to get funding, and so there's pressure to keep up your funding and publication record," De Vries says.

So when a professor is pressured to use a research method that he or she doesn't believe is good science, what is the alternative? "She needs the funding to keep her lab going," De Vries says.

Scientists also discussed the politics of grant funding and stories about people stealing ideas.

"We heard about younger researchers presenting ideas at conferences and then hearing that a senior person at another institution wrote the idea in a grant and got it funded," De Vries says. "We heard stories of other people submitting a grant for a review, getting a bad score, and then somebody else got the same idea funded in the first round."

The latter story was mentioned so often in focus groups that it could be apocryphal and almost a myth, De Vries notes. "But it's an interesting myth," he adds.


  1. De Vries R, Anderson MS, Martinson BC. Normal misbehavior: scientists talk about the ethics of research. JERHRE. 2006:43-50.