‘Fraud and Misconduct in Research’

Using a database of 750 cases of research fraud from around the world, professors examine fraud as a phenomenon, tracing its history and trajectory and looking at what can be done about it.

December 5, 2017
University of Michigan Press

When a researcher is busted for fraud, the exposure often trickles out from source to source. Whether it's exposed by an institution, professional association, journal or the media, word gets out.

Depending on how big a deal a case is, it might make international headlines. Other times, the fraud is dealt with quietly. But why does it occur, and why does it keep occurring? From an environmental and organizational level, what can be done to combat research fraud? Is there something to be learned by examining fraud at a level beyond just the case-by-case stories, sometimes packaged in shock journalism with explosive headlines?

Those are the types of questions that caught the attention of Nachman Ben-Yehuda and Amalya Oliver-Lumerman, professors in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem -- inspiring them to write their own catalog of the history and ramifications of research fraud in Fraud and Misconduct in Research: Detection, Investigation and Organizational Response (University of Michigan Press).

Based on an examination of 748 cases where there were public records or reports of fraud, in English, between 1880 and 2010, the book is not a comprehensive look at every case of research fraud that ever occurred, the authors acknowledge. (Most of the cases are clustered in the United States, for example.) But the book serves as a look at how fraud, and the response to it, has changed over the years, and how different stakeholders -- governments, institutions and journals, whose reputations rely on academic integrity and the clean use of research money -- have responded.

While the authors argue fraud “is not a major characteristic of science,” and that the research industry is healthy over all, they do say their analysis leads them to believe fraud is underreported. And new regulations, they write, need to consider the effects on day-to-day work: they should spur growth in research as much as they curb cheating.

Ben-Yehuda and Oliver-Lumerman answered questions jointly via email. The following exchange has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q: What made you interested in researching and writing on this topic?

A: We were involved (in our administrative roles at that time) in a case of suspected research fraud that exemplified how complex dealing with such issues can be. The case became a big ordeal for the department, the faculty and the university, and the relevant international scientific community. The entire affair, which lasted several months, made us very curious. It obviously raised interesting questions about the more general phenomena of fraud in research. It was thus this affair which propelled and motivated us to examine in depth issues of misconduct and fraud in research.

The numerous discussions we had about the event we had to deal with, as well as about other cases that came to our attention, led us to become even more curious about other cases: their characteristics, cultural differences, gender issues, and how they were dealt with by universities and other stakeholders. As a research team, we felt that the combination of a sociologist who studies deviance (Ben-Yehuda) who had already worked on the issue of fraud in science, and an organizational sociologist (Oliver-Lumerman), could offer alternative and refreshing theoretical foci to the phenomena we wanted to study. And so the idea of this book was born.

Q: What was your most important takeaway from the research that went into the book? Was there anything that surprised you along the way?

A: Among our most important takeaways is that an inquiry should not investigate fraud in research without examining the wider context. This includes the involvement of various stakeholders. The fact is that approaching fraud in research has changed over the years from a lenient treatment to a much more severe treatment (with even prison sentences in some later cases). Moreover, institutions which encountered cases of fraud in research have become increasingly transparent about the cases. Finally, it really takes the combination of a whistle-blower together with a serious organizational response to detect, expose and treat cases of research fraud.

A few things surprised us. Among them is our realization that fraud in research reflects a systemic problem and does not reflect only an individual level. Moreover, the relatively high frequency of cases detected in top institutions was quite surprising. Consequently, one of our conclusions is that fraud in research probably reflects an iceberg phenomenon (e.g., we know only of a small fraction of the cases) rather than a bad apple one (e.g., we know about most of the deviant cases). Furthermore, one of the things that really caught us by surprise is the fact that, quite frequently, when we told colleagues about our research project, again and again they tended to tell us about cases of research fraud that that they knew about yet [that] were not documented in any place we could reach.

Q: Who is your ideal audience for this book?

A: We strongly feel that this is an important and timely issue and is relevant to many. We thus wrote this book for a wide audience including scientists, university administrators, policy makers, funding agencies, students and the general public.

Q: Are there any limitations to your research are important for readers to consider?

A: Obviously, we suspect that we were able to detect only a fraction of research fraud cases and thus our study is bounded to the cases that we were able to track through various existing resources. Moreover, full case information was not always available.

Q: What new questions arose during your research that haven't been able to be answered yet?

A: There are a few such questions. For example: How do individual accounts by fraudster researchers explain the reasons for their deviances? Whether and to what degree do the new university and journals policies impact scientific integrity? Are there any global emerging patterns aiming to reduce research fraud? What forms of inter-institutional collaborations can increase norms of research integrity? What is being done to enhance research integrity norms among entry- and senior-level scientists?


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