It’s not hard to see that men are more likely to engage in risky behaviors than women, or that crime rates are many times higher among men, but this tendency to break the rules also extends to male scientists, according to a study to be published on January 22 in mBio®, the online open-access journal of the American Society for Microbiology. An analysis of data from the Office of Research Integrity reveals that men commit research misconduct more often than their female peers, a gender disparity that is most pronounced among senior scientists.
“Not only are men committing more research misconduct,” says Joan W. Bennett of Rutgers University, a co-author on the study. “Senior men are most likely to do so.”
In the study Bennett teamed with Ferric C. Fang of the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle and Arturo Casadevall of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, and scrutinized data from the U.S. Office of Research Integrity, an organization that investigates allegations of misconduct in research supported by the Department of Health and Human Services. “Misconduct” includes such infractions as fabrication, falsification or plagiarism.
They found that out of the 227 individuals sanctioned for committing scientific misconduct between 1994 and the present, 66% were male, a number that far outstrips their overall representation among researchers in the life sciences. And although men represent about 70% of faculty in the life sciences, 88% of faculty who committed misconduct were male.
If the fact that men are more likely to commit scientific misconduct is less than surprising, Casadevall says, what did surprise the authors is the fact that misconduct is not confined to inexperienced, early-career strivers.
“When you look at the numbers, you see that the problem of misconduct carries through the entire career of scientists,” says Casadevall. Faculty (32%) and other research personnel (28%) represented a total of 60% of cases, whereas students (16%) and post-doctoral fellows (25%) were sanctioned in only 41% of cases.
Casadevall says this disparity belies the common conception that misconduct is most often committed by research trainees striving to make a name for themselves. “Those numbers are very lopsided when you look at faculty. You can imagine people would take these risks when people are going up the ladder,” says Casadevall, but once they’ve made it to the rank of “faculty”, presumably the incentive to get ahead would be outweighed by the risk of losing status and employment, he says. Not so, apparently.
Bennett asserts that the “winner take all” reward system of science and pressure to secure funding that drives researchers of both sexes into misconduct is also to blame for driving women out of research. “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.”
But why do men in the life sciences commit fraud more often than the women they work with? It’s probably a combination of factors, says Fang. “A variety of biological, social and cultural explanations have been proposed for these differences,” he says. “But we can’t really say which of these apply to the specific problem of research misconduct.” Biology can’t be ruled out, but the authors point to recent studies that indicate competitive tendencies arise from social and cultural influences.
Regardless of the reasons why, the fact remains that research misconduct continues, even in the face of mandatory ethics training for research trainees at many institutions. Now that it’s clear the problem of misconduct is not confined to trainees, it may be time to broaden ethics training to include the more senior researchers who seem to be driving the problem.
“Misconduct is a tremendous problem in science,” says Casadevall. “The data show that it’s coming predominantly from one gender. I think as scientists we need to understand it and try to reduce it.”
Science has yet to provide a conclusive answer for why men are more likely to break social rules and take risks than women, but statistics bear out the anecdotes. In the U.S., for instance, 88% of perpetrators in homicides are male, and men represent about 63% of accidental deaths. Whether acting out in such ways is a result of upbringing and conditioning, of hard-wired genetics, or both is a matter of considerable controversy.
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