How often do economists commit misconduct?
We haven’t covered that many retractions in economics, and a 2012 paper found very few such retractions. Now, a new study based on a survey of economists tries to get a handle on how often economists commit scientific misconduct.
Here’s the abstract of “Scientific misbehavior in economics,” which appeared in Research Policy:
This study reports the results of a survey of professional, mostly academic economists about their research norms and scientific misbehavior. Behavior such as data fabrication or plagiarism are (almost) unanimously rejected and admitted by less than 4% of participants. Research practices that are often considered “questionable,” e.g., strategic behavior while analyzing results or in the publication process, are rejected by at least 60%. Despite their low justifiability, these behaviors are widespread. Ninety-four percent report having engaged in at least one unaccepted research practice. Surveyed economists perceive strong pressure to publish. The level of justifiability assigned to different misdemeanors does not increase with the perception of pressure. However, perceived pressure is found to be positively related to the admission of being involved in several unaccepted research practices. Although the results cannot prove causality, they are consistent with the notion that the “publish or perish” culture motivates researchers to violate research norms.
Some examples: More than half of economists who responded to the survey said they had “refrained from checking the contents of the works cited,” while about 20% said admitted to salami slicing — ie “Maximized the number of publications by dividing the work to the smallest publishable unit, meaning several individual articles covering similar topics and differing from each other only slightly” — and about a third said they had cherry-picked, or “presented empirical findings selectively so that they confirm one’s argument.”
We asked Daniele Fanelli, who published a highly cited paper on misconduct in 2009, for his take:
The study is methodologically very thorough and accurate and certainly improves existing evidence available in economics. As far as general prevalence of misconduct and QRPs go, survey data are unlikely to surprise us any longer, at least when conducted in western countries. The results of this study fall mostly within the ranges suggested by previous studies.
Other results, however, are remarkably informative. For example, the fact that respondents find “copying work from others without citing” less justifiable than fabricating data or “using tricks” to increase t-values. Such a scale of values might tell us a lot about the priorities that the contemporary scientific system is instilling into researchers, in economics and possibly in other disciplines.
A side note: A line in the acknowledgements caught our eye:
The author is grateful to the editors and three anonymous referees for excellent comments and suggestions. The author is indebted to Lars P. Feld and Bruno S. Frey. Without their support, the project would have been impossible.
Frey, of course, was involved in a duplication — aka self-duplication — kerfuffle, for which he has apologized.
The author of the paper, Sarah Necker of the University of Freiburg, tells Retraction Watch:
The project is part of my dissertation, Bruno Frey provided support with regard to the development of the questionnaire and the distribution of the survey. He commented several times on the manuscript. The research project is unrelated to the self-plagiarism problems, the survey was conducted long before any criticism came up.