Are men more likely to commit scientific fraud?

mbioRegular 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.

33 thoughts on “Are men more likely to commit scientific fraud?”

  1. Since the cases were fraud are caught should be seen as exceptional, perhaps the data is being biased by whatever caused these cases to become exceptional. Generally speaking so long as you keep on good terms with the powerful figures in your faculty or the like, you should be OK to commit fraud.

    So the ones that are caught are those who were careless enough to lose their institutional backing and it may be that if women are temperamentally or by social conditioning more consensus seeking, they are less likely to find themselves isolated.

    I only know in the lab and university I worked at where fraud is considered a necessary evil – obviously it was preferred if you did not commit fraud, but since it was believed that everyone else was doing it, a modest degree of falsification to get the required publications, provided it didn’t introduce any new concepts, was considered acceptable. Anyway, in this lab I know of 3 PhD students who submitted falsified data: 2 females, 1 male. In other words I think it comes down to culture, not gender. If the culture says a modest degree of falsification is acceptable, then it will become normal.

    I should add if defense of my former university, they say this is only because this how they believe the top American universities behave. The head of my lab had had a number of post-doc positions in the US and said this view was quite normal (albeit he only told this to a tech and not me).

    1. Whether there is a bias in favour of males or not, you are correct that there is no reason to be complacent about the potential for females to commit fraud. Three spectacular cases are

      Kristin Roovers

      Elizabeth Goodwin

      Silvia Bulfone-Paus

      Oh and by the way, you were discussing the first author of a 2004 Cancer Cell paper in the recent Weinberg comment thread. You wrote “he” but the author is most definitely a “she”.

      1. Yes, exactly. By the way, who knows what is now happening to Silvia Bulfone-Paus and her husband? That was an interesting detective novel we discussed last year.

    2. “since it was believed that everyone else was doing it, a modest degree of falsification to get the required publications, provided it didn’t introduce any new concepts, was considered acceptable” …

      This is now known as ‘the Lance Armstrong argument’. littlegreyrabbit’s comment suggests that competitive cycling is not the only area whose culture needs changing. I don’t recall coming across such blatant acceptance of fraud in the UK when I was a postdoc, though of course that doesn’t prove it wasn’t there.

    3. You seem to have been particularly unlucky in your choice of department littlegreyrabbit and I wonder whether there is any signficance in the fact that you seem to have ended up in what you describe is a rather weird university setting with this astonishingly cynical approach to science. Imagine if all research institutes were like that! Science progress would pretty much grind to a halt. Happily it isn’t like that.

      Including my research degree I’ve worked in four different University departments on two continents, and done numerous visits to other labs in several countries to learn techniques and try out experiments and so on. The pervasive acceptance of fraud you insinuate is not something that I’ve ever encountered…not once.

      Shame really…cynicism isn’t particularly constructive. On the other hand perhaps you might have gotten a more realistic viewpoint if you weren’t so willing to incorporate second hand views (e.g. about what your lab head apparently told a technician). I have rather got the feeling over the years that people tend to settle into environments that match their own psychologies and maybe there is a little bit of psychological “predestination” in relation to the progression of our careers and how this affects our outlook.

  2. Well, women are more sophisticated than men in what they do…

    On the other hand, “enhanced” publications result in more grants/funding and higher positions/salaries, and men have to feed their families…

      1. Yes, some of them have to… so, the number of female misconducts is not zero, it is just lower than that of males…

        OK, OK, your idea is that women and men are equal in all respects. Yes, but if they are the same, why the article suggests that their misconduct rates are different?

    1. Yup, it’s difficult to feed a family on $50,000 a year and no tenure. It really takes more than $100,000 a year and tenure.

    1. “Another fascinating observation about scientists who behave badly is that, by the time they are brought to book, they have usually committed a string of offences. Cases of research misconduct are virtually never isolated incidents.”

      Food for thought.

      1. The very first retraction due to misconduct should be earning the offending party an audit of his or, dare I say, her remaining papers as a precaution.

        1. This is more general, but what about an audit once you reach 50 papers, 100 papers, then every hundred papers? First off examine the data you can see on the page for infringements of good practice.

          1. Very good idea.

            Another interesting thing would be to ask during those “milestone examinations” whether (s)he knows what those papers are about.

  3. “and the proportion of male trainees among those committing misconduct was greater than would be predicted from the gender distribution of life sciences trainees.”

    I have one question regarding this comparison… The ORI investigates only cases concerning projects funded with US federal public money, right? So the expected distributions should be those of the grantees and the students, postdocs and technicians financed through such projects, rather than with the scientific population in general, or in the field as a whole… Or are those distributions similar enough? Okay, that’s two questions.

    Also, if we are reading one of the authors’ responses about the reasons: “Many women are totally turned off by the maneuverings and starkly competitive way of the academic workplace,” says Bennett. “Cheating on the system is just one of many factors that induce women to leave academe and seek professional careers in other environments.” — From

    If this were the case (and of course if there weren’t all the other factors like men’s stronger tendency to take risks), then one should expect the gender distributions among fraudsters to tend toward the expected for the higher echelons of researchers. Not the other way around.

    I guess I’ll have to wait until the DOI works to get the answer to my first point…

  4. Sounds like an excellent question for someone like Diederik Stapel to tackle! I guess his answer might be though that it isn’t the fact that they are men, but their larger consumption of meat which causes them to behave badly.

    1. I agree. I suspect that women are less savvy about how little the system will thank them. I suspect that men are much more aware that institutions don’t want “trouble”. No institution will promote a person who shows a willingness to cause trouble. And it’s the snitch who causes the trouble. There would be no trouble if whistleblowers would only put down their whistles. I think men understand that this is the way the world works. Not that they necessarily agree, but they seem to be more aware of the consequences than women are.

    2. Hm… may be the higher percentage of male fraudsters identified is the result of the higher percentage of female whistleblowers.

  5. I agree with CH, but more so. Before jumping to any speculative gender-based conclusions, the study would need to control for a lot more factors. Most importantly, as CH points out, there’s a fundamental flaw in the study design. The universe of life science scientists does not necessarily have the same gender balance as the universe of grant recipients subject to ORI jurisdiction. In fact, a recent a recent study mentioned in Science concluded that women didn’t get grants in proportion to their numbers. Neither study was well-controlled for other explanatory variables, and neither one allows us to say anything about any gender-based difference in ethics or ability. But if grant distribution is non-random, for whatever reason, then total life scientists aren’t the appropriate population for comparison.

    1. Most students and post-docs don’t have their own grants, so I feel that the NSF workforce data on gender distribution of students and post-docs working in the life sciences are the best comparator for these groups. The suggestion that the gender distribution of faculty grant-holders is different than the gender distribution of total faculty in the life sciences is a testable hypothesis. The current % of NIH research grant recipients who are women is 30% (NIH Data Book), which is precisely the same as the mean % of life sciences faculty who are women from the NSF data obtained for our study. Current grant success rates for new applications are the same for men and for women. The % of grant recipients and % of life sciences faculty have risen slightly over time, so it is possible that differences in grant success might account for a few percentage points of the gender skew. However the 8-to-1 ratio of males-to-females among faculty members committing misconduct cannot be principally explained on this basis.

      1. @Ferric Fang: Thanks for the response. I located the news article I referred to:

        As you’ll see, the raw numbers for grants are essentially gender-neutral, but the detailed picture is much more interesting (assuming that this limited study is representative). Men are much more likely to hold larger grants as PIs on large projects. This suggests the following hypothesis.

        From an eyeball estimate, an unreasonable proportion of the ethical lapses seem to stem from cases in which the PI trying to do too much. This leads to inadequate supervision, inadequate training, inadequate screening of suspicious results, pressure to cut corners and, over time, a breakdown in ethical standards. Senior PIs are, according to the cited article, significantly more likely to be male. A related bias in the numbers is that ORI is probably more likely to work up cases involving large grants and/or cases which point to ethical lapses by the PI personally. Conversely, perhaps misconduct is more likely to be dealt with locally and informally (e.g., by the institution) when the perpetrator is relatively junior, so that the matter never gets to ORI.

        I don’t claim that this hypothesis is correct — only that it provides a gender-neutral explanation which is also consistent with the data and which is at least as probable, a priori, as the speculation that male scientists are inherently more evil.

  6. “Among research staff, 43 percent of those committing misconduct were male.”

    Unless many research staffers are in the “other” category, 57% of those committing misconduct were women. It may be that women greatly outnumber men in research staff, or gender parity in misconduct is already working itself up the ladder.

  7. I do not see where the article defines “fraud,” yet states “Fraud was involved in 215 (94%) of these cases.”
    “Fraud” is not part of what ORI investigates.
    Also, while the U.S. may be the only country “with an ORI,” ORI is not the only agency that investigates misconduct. NSF, DOE, DOD, Interior, NOAA, NASA…etc all have IGs or other components that investigate the OSTP definition of misconduct–which is fabrication, falsification and fabrication.

    Without comparable stats from these agencies conclusions are incomplete.

  8. For the record, I only date men that know more quantum mechanics than I do. My partner has a strong publishing record in quantum mechanics in Physical Review Letters & other more technical magazines (PRB etc.).

    The scientific record is, in some ways, how us mildly clever gals rate the menfolk. Please, don’t disrupt it. It’s a record of the scientists- not a prestige game.

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