In science, few things are more dispiriting than instances of scientific misconduct. Memorable examples abound: the recent retraction of two Nature papers that described stress-induced stem cells; the revelation that results trumpeting the success of an HIV vaccine were deliberately falsified; and perhaps most egregiously, the discrediting of research that purported to link vaccinations with autism.

While these and other disturbing instances of scientific misconduct naturally come up whenever we consider how best to preserve the integrity of the scientific enterprise, they may serve to overheat discussion. Alternative or at least complementary points of debate are less anecdotal and more statistical.

Statistics, in fact, are at the heart of a “Head to Head” published July 15 in the British Medical Journal. Beneath the title “Should research fraud be a crime?,” an emphatic “Yes!” is argued by Zulfiqar A. Bhutta, Ph.D., chair in global child health and policy at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. An equally emphatic “No!” is argued by Julian Crane, MB BS, director of the Wellington Asthma Research Group in the Department of Medicine at the University of Otago Wellington in New Zealand.

Both contributors cite the same statistics but interpret them differently. Looming largest in the debate were two studies.

  1. In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a review of all 2,047 retracted biomedical research articles indexed by PubMed up to May 3, 2012, found that 67.4% of retractions were attributable to scientific misconduct including fraud or suspected fraud (43.4%), duplicate publication (14.2%), and plagiarism (9.8%).
  2. In PLOS One, the number of articles retracted a year increased 19-fold from 2001 to 2010, and the increase was still 11-fold after repeat offenders were excluded and growth of the literature had been adjusted for.

After weighing these figures and considering the difficulties of establishing intent, Dr. Bhutta wrote, “Notwithstanding the importance of preventive measures, currently research fraud offers relatively little risk for potentially great rewards, and the process for detecting research fraud is also too dependent on chance detection or whistleblowers.”

More to the point, he added: “I can accept that there is a gradient of research misconduct. But in cases where deliberate research fraud is proved after thorough investigation, additional deterrence through punitive measures such as criminal proceedings should be added to the repertoire of measures available….It is time to regard [research misconduct] in the same category as criminal fraud and deal with it accordingly.”

For his part, Dr. Crane questioned whether scientific misconduct really was on the rise. He suggested that it may appear to be more common simply because it is easier to detect with electronic publication. In any case, he added, any rise in misconduct may have less to do with lax enforcement than with increased pressure on researchers to publish quickly and with as much impact as possible to ensure ongoing funding and academic promotion. “We now have an index for an individual’s research productivity and impact that does not escape employers and promotion committees and national research review exercises,” he wrote.

Dr. Crane also warned that criminalizing misconduct could have unintended consequences: “What happens when the police and the judiciary do get involved? Ask the Italian seismologists convicted of manslaughter and given six-year jail terms and hefty fines for failing to predict an earthquake. Here the definitions of misconduct or fraud are irrelevant: They didn’t commit any.”

“Criminalizing research misconduct is a sad, bad, even mad idea,” Dr. Crane concluded, “that will only undermine the trust that is an essential component of research and requires good governance, not criminal investigators.”

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