Nature editorial staff on stigmatizing scientific fraudsters

“[N]ot all cases of [scientific] misconduct are equally egregious, and not all perpetrators deserve to be branded as cheaters for the rest of their careers.”

- from a Nature editorial

In the most recent issue of Nature, the lead editorial discusses a new survey suggesting that scientific misconduct, especially in biomedical research, is more prevalent than previously thought. Just under ten per cent of people surveyed said they’d witnessed an incident in the last three years, with just under forty percent of these events not being reported.

Within the same issue, a news piece highlights the case of a postdoc who faked a number of biochemical figures in at least two prominent papers, and the authors of the above-mentioned survey, Sandra Titus and colleagues, explore the ramifications of their findings. These authors advocate solutions such as making it easier for whistle-blowers to uncover fraud without stigma being attached to them.

The editorial, however, questions whether simply naming, shaming and banishing the perpetrators is enough. The worry is that many situations are very complex, and one person’s perceived fraud might be another person’s misinterpretation of data. There is surely a fine line between improving a figure’s quality, for example, and changing the message transmitted by that figure. These sorts of decisions need to be made out in the open, not by individual authors working in secret. More importantly perhaps, simply punishing a perpetrator without bothering to understand the lab culture and pressures that might have led someone to such a desperate step will not solve any problems in the long term.

You can read the rest of the editorial here.