P.Mean: Harsh sanctions are only part of the solution (created 2008-08-06).

The Scientist Newsblog had an article about research fraud.

Many of the people who commented on the blog were surprised that there were not any serious sanctions on the researcher who perpetrated the fraud. There were suggestions to revoke the graduate degree and to block any future research funding for this individual. I added a comment, because harsh sanctions are the simplest suggestion, but there may be more effective approaches that should be used as well. Here is what I wrote.

Harsh sanctions are only part of the solution
by Steve Simon

[Comment posted 2008-08-06]

While I agree with most of the comments that harsh sanctions are necessary when fraud is discovered, I would suggest that this will have only a limited effect. Most people who falsify data (and who commit crimes in general) are not expecting to get caught. They may be right. The amount of undiscovered fraud is difficult to estimate.

I would suggest first that most courses on research ethics have limited effectiveness. It's hard to do this well, and perhaps naive to believe that a single class is sufficient. Ethical conduct has to be emphasized throughout the entire curriculum.

I would also suggest that data collection systems should be designed to minimize the opportunity for fraud. Data collection needs to be easily auditable and regularly audited. Laboratory scientists already do quite a bit here, but even more effort is needed. As a statistician, I am strongly in favor of this, because even in the absence of fraud easily auditable systems enhance data quality.

Finally, the system needs to have strong protection for whistleblowers. Most research fraud is uncovered by whistleblowers and these individuals are usually not in a position of authority. They are subject to serious coercion, and unless the system protects good faith reports of potential fraud, there will be a strong disincentive to reporting.

Steve Simon (aka Professor Mean)

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