Are men more likely to commit scientific fraud?
Regular Retraction Watch readers may have noticed that many of the people whose fraud we write about are men. Certainly, the top retraction earners — Yoshitaka Fujii, Joachim Boldt, Diederik Stapel, and Naoki Mori, to name a few — all have a Y chromosome. But that doesn’t necessarily mean our sample size is representative.
Now along comes a study of U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI) reports suggesting that men are in fact overrepresented among scientists who commit fraud. In a study published online today in mBio, Ferric Fang and Arturo Casadevall — whose names will also be familiar to Retraction Watch readers for their previous work — along with Joan Bennett analyzed 228 ORI reports since 1994, and found that 149 — or 65% — were male. (The vast majority of the 228 cases — 94% — involved fraud such as falsification or fabrication, while the others presumably involved misconduct such as plagiarism.)
And it’s not just that there are more men in the life sciences. At every stage of a life science career, the percentage of males found by the ORI to have committed misconduct was higher than the percentage of male life scientists overall:
An overwhelming 88% of faculty members committing misconduct were male, compared with 69% of postdocs, 58% of students, and 43% of other research personnel (Fig. 1). The male-female distribution of postdocs and students corresponds with the gender distribution of postdocs and students in science and engineering fields (4). However, nearly all instances of misconduct investigated by the ORI involved research in the life sciences, and the proportion of male trainees among those committing misconduct was greater than would be predicted from the gender distribution of life sciences trainees.
The findings were particularly striking for faculty members:
Of the 72 faculty members found to have committed misconduct, only 9 were female, or one-third of the number that would have been predicted from their overall representation among life sciences faculty.
The study builds on an earlier one by the ORI’s Lawrence Rhoades which found that from 1994 to 2003, men made up 68% of those found guilty of misconduct.
What explains the male predominance? As the authors of the new study note,
…it may be tempting to explain the preponderance of male fraud in terms of various evolutionary theories about Y chromosome-driven competitiveness and aggressiveness.
But such “simplistic generalizations” have a lot of pitfalls, Fang and colleagues write, and in any case:
We cannot exclude the possibility that females commit research misconduct as frequently as males but are less likely to be detected.
Still, the authors note:
…men are more likely to engage in risky behaviors than women (13) and that crime rates for men are higher than those for women.
The paper’s results also suggest that “it was the grad student/postdoc” doesn’t reflect reality as often as it might seem:
Although we expected most cases of misconduct to involve research trainees, we found that only 40% of instances of misconduct were attributed to a postdoctoral fellow (25%) or student (16%). Faculty members (32%) and other research personnel (28%) were responsible for the remaining instances of misconduct, and these included both junior and senior faculty members, research scientists, technicians, study coordinators, and interviewers.
It’s unclear whether these trends would be the same in other countries, Fang tells Retraction Watch, given that the U.S. is the only one with an ORI. (The ORI’s records were also the basis of a study by Donald Kornfeld last year.) As the authors conclude:
In closing, the vital importance of the ORI is acknowledged. Without public access to their investigations, it would have been impossible to carry out this study. All countries should have independent agencies with the authority and resources to ensure proper conduct of scientific research.