Why Do Men Commit Most Research Fraud?

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A study published earlier this week reporting that males commit two-thirds of research fraud has raised a lot of troubling questions. Who are these Lance Armstrongs in lab coats, and why are they almost always men?

Published in mBio, the online journal of the American Society for Microbiology, the study examined annual reports by the United States Office of Research Integrity, and identified 228 individuals who have committed misconduct of some sort (94 percent involved fraud). In the words of the researchers, led by the University of Washington’s Ferric Fang:

Analysis of the data by career stage and gender revealed that misconduct occurred across the entire career spectrum from trainee to senior scientist, and that two-thirds of the individuals found to have committed misconduct were male. This exceeds the overall proportion of males among life science trainees and faculty.

Interestingly, the percentage of males caught committing fraud increased with their academic rank. “An overwhelming 88 percent of faculty members committing misconduct were male, compared with 69 percent of postdocs, 58 percent of students and 42 percent of other research personnel,” the researchers write.

Joseph Stromberg, blogging at Smithsonian.com, found this fascinating. “It’s often assumed that young trainees would be most likely to lie, given the difficulty of climbing the academic pyramid,” he writes, “but this idea doesn’t jive with the actual data.”

In Stromberg’s view, this data suggests that “rising to the status of faculty only increases the pressure to produce useful research, and the temptation to engage in fraud. Another (unwelcome) possibility is that those who commit fraud are more likely to reach senior faculty positions in the first place, and many of them just get exposed later in their careers.”

The story wasn’t only picked up on science-oriented sites, but also the irreverent, woman-centric Jezebel.com. It spawned some caustic comments there, including one from a person who identifies herself as PhilBluee:

I’m a woman (of color) and a physics student. Sometimes I feel like I have to prove myself and that I’m under more scrutiny than male students. Whether that’s true or not, I feel like I need to do work that no one can complain about.

Another commenter, identified as kiisseli, made a similar point using saltier language:

If you already know a (sexist) reviewer is going to come down hard on your ass, you better double, triple, thousand-times check over your stuff. That’s why I, a lady life-sciences grad student, am never going to even think about pulling this s—t (of course, above and beyond the fact that it’s wrong).

So if older, tenured males commit a disproportionate amount of fraud, perhaps it’s because they’re more likely to believe they can get away with it.