An analysis of professional misconduct published today concluded that male scientists were more likely to commit fraud than females—though how much more likely varied, depending on their place within the academic spectrum.

The study found that overall, 65% of the fraud cases were committed by males. Among academic ranks, 88% of faculty members who committed misconduct were male. The percentage varies with academic rank: up to 69% of postdoctoral fellows, down to 58% of students, and 43% of other research personnel.

“You might think that as scientists go up the career ladder, they would feel more secure. But the bigger the lab you run, the more grants you need, which increases the pressures to publish and the temptation to cheat,” the study’s male senior author, Arturo Casadevall, M.D., Ph.D., said in a statement. Dr. Casadevall is professor and chair of microbiology and immunology, and professor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University. Last year, he co-authored a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that concluded misconduct rather than errors accounted for most retractions of scientific papers.

Dr. Casadevall is also editor-in-chief of the online journal mBio, which yesterday published the study. Joining him as co-authors were another male investigator, Ferric C. Fang, M.D., of University of Washington, School of Medicine; and a female investigator, Joan W. Bennett, Ph.D., of Rutgers University. In addition to being a professor of plant biology and pathology, Dr. Bennett is also associate vp for the university’s Office for the Promotion of Women in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics (“SciWomen”), charged with promoting the welfare of women in science, engineering, mathematics, and the health professions across Rutgers’ campuses at Camden, NJ, New Brunswick, NJ, and Newark, NJ.

The co-authors reviewed 228 individual cases of misconduct reported by the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI) from 1994 through 2012. An analysis determined that fraud was involved in 215 (94%) of the 228 cases reported by the ORI. Of total fraud cases, 40% involved trainees, 32% involved faculty members, and 28% involved other research personnel such as research scientists, technicians, study coordinators, and interviewers.

Among faculty members, 72 were found to have committed misconduct, of which only nine were female—one-third of the number that would have been predicted from their overall representation among life sciences faculty: “We cannot exclude the possibility that females commit research misconduct as frequently as males but are less likely to be detected,” the research team said in their study.

The study did not explore why men were more likely to commit academic misconduct. “As research has shown, males tend to be risk takers, more so than females, and to commit fraud entails taking a risk. It may also be that males are more competitive, or that women are more sensitive to the threat of sanctions,” Dr. Casadevall speculated. “I think the best answer is that we don’t know.”

“Now that we have documented the problem, we can begin a serious discussion about what is going on and what can be done about it,” he added.

Dr. Casadevall offered one possible solution: periodic ethics training for scientists at all levels of academia. “Right now we target trainees for ethics training. We don’t do anything after they are hired. It might help if universities required refresher courses in ethics, as they do with courses to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. It won’t stop all misconduct, but it’s one place to start.” 

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