Who has the biggest snakepit?

As I was weighing in on aetosaurs and scientist on scientist nastiness, one of the people I was talking to raised the question of whether careerist theft and backstabbing of professional colleagues was especially bad in paleontology. (Meanwhile, a commenter expressed surprise that it wasn't just biomedical researchers who felt driven to cheat.)

I don't know. So I figured I'd put it to my readers:

In your experience, which scientific discipline seems most prone to fabrication, falsification, plagiarism, and generally nasty business between its members?

Do you have any hypotheses as to why that may be so? (For example, is it the circumstances around funding, shared resources like dig sites or data sets, the number of "good" journals in that discipline? Is it the personalities of the people at the top of the hierarchy in that discipline?)

And, because I think it's equally important:

In your experience, which scientific discipline seems least prone to fabrication, falsification, plagiarism, and the like, and most prone to collegial and productive relations between its members?

Again, what's your hunch as to why that's the case?

Possibly an examination of the professional communities where things are going reasonably well will help us come up with some strategies to clear some vipers out of the dysfunctional communities.

UPDATE: In the comments, Bill notes that most people only have personal experience in a single disciplinary community, and thus probably can't say much about how their field compares to others. He suggests the following question:

In YOUR field, how many incidents of each the following have you personally witnessed?

  • plagiarism
  • fabrication
  • falsification
  • data withholding
  • character assassination

Plus other behaviors that contribute to the snake-pit-like ambiance.

Bill's point is well-taken (and I agree with his premise). I think I initially phrased the question the way I did because I have a hunch that there are at least a few scientific disciplines whose members tell each other that their snake pit is the worst. I don't know if there's reason for them to feel better if it turns out that other professional communities are similarly bad, but maybe it paves the way for cross-disciplinary efforts by like minded people to make things better.

In the meantime, possibly we'll hear from folks in fields where these kinds of behavior are very, very rare.

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I've known of two cases, both in cancer research. The first was a guy who fabricated/fudge data in order to publish and get a grant. He was going up for tenure and he knew that without a big grant he wouldn't get it.

The second was data stealing. Back in the days when people used notebooks and photocopied them (circa 1996), a post-doc got a lot of info from a competing lab he was visiting, via "dump diving". After admitting to "plagiarism", he indicated that he did it in order to be more competitive for a tenure-track position.

I work on evolutionary ecology and I can't recall anything as serious as the two above. Our NSF funding rates are much lower (8-10%) so the competition is stiff. Still, the number of researchers is much smaller.

By TrekJunkie (not verified) on 04 Feb 2008 #permalink

Like trekjunkie, I agree that ecology (my field) is least prone to scientific integrity issues. I really don't enough enough experience with other fields to assess the most prone, but I would submit that biomed/biotech fields would be a good candidate. While I think that some of it may be related to stiff competition and the large pool of researchers, I feel some of the problem is with attitude.

Not to say all ecologists are idealistic, lets-all-work-together-hand-holding types, but I think it is a very collaborative field and the general atmosphere is congenial. People will spend their time ripping apart your statistics and methods. There also might not be as much overlap between labs as there are in other fields.

But this is just my opinion and I have no real working inside knowledge of other fields to assess them.

MY BS and MS are in Geology. One reason I left the field to do fish taxonomy, was my perception of money-driven activities in the field. It was suggested to me that I fabricate a geologic map of an area and see if we could sell it to an oil explortation company, for example.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 04 Feb 2008 #permalink

I also don't know enough to pinpoint best and worst fields, but there is an important dictum to remember: Academic politics can be particularly nasty because the stakes are so low.

The reason the posters above (and on the previous thread) named the biomedical field as most prone to misconduct is that unlike many scientific areas, the stakes are relatively high (both monetary and otherwise), so researchers are more likely to have a discernible motive for cheating. The impression I get from science news is that biomedical research has a disproportionate share of high-profile cases, but that does not mean that they have the biggest snakepit. It's clear from the aetosaur case that paleontologists often have not only motive (naming rights) but also means and opportunity (in-house publications and the like) for misconduct. Means and opportunity are harder to come by in most other fields.

Physics is certainly not immune (Jan-Hendrik Schön, for example), but in most subfields a fabricator is overwhelmingly likely to be caught sooner or later. Plagiarism is harder to catch; when it is caught it is usually because the victim happens to be a referee on the paper in question (as was true in the case where my work was plagiarized).

My guess for "cleanest" field (by the criteria described in the post) would be chemistry. That field has an ingrained habit of maintaining detailed lab notebooks (in duplicate, at minimum) to establish priority, and results are relatively easy to duplicate. When the probability of being caught is sufficiently high, people won't fabricate results or plagiarize papers.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 04 Feb 2008 #permalink

My only experience of this sort of thing is in technical zoology/palaeontology - but one of my colleagues has always said 'The arguments are so big because the stakes are so small'. Does this count as a hypothesis? :)

Thanks again for your coverage of this. This whole episode indicates (note: 'indicates') that ethical concerns really need more attention in at least some branches of the sciences, and self-policing isn't reliable when people want to ignore it. And apathy seems to be a big problem here.

Very few people will have sufficiently broad AND deep experience of different scientific specialties to answer the question as posed.

It might be better to ask: in YOUR field, how many incidents of each the following have you personally witnessed:

*data withholding
*character assassination
*etc etc -- see that paper on "normal misconduct" for a good checklist.

Then if you get a decent number of answers you can tally 'em up and make a guess at where the snakes are worst.

People are people-it is going to happen everywhere and in every field.
I know it happens in Geology/Paleontology too commonly. Two years ago, I reviewed a paper in which the author both self-plagiarised and falsified photographic data. He had a paper in press with this journal who asked me to review his "new" paper. There was nothing subtle about it- whole sections were the same and the photos had been doctored to show his new theory. When I brought it to the journal's attention, their response was to say I was being too harsh and that they try to encourage third-world submissions, but they probably would reject it since they were publishing another paper of his. I replied I was amazed that this was the type of standard they wanted to set; needless to say I have not been asked to review another paper for them. I am still mad about it today, and probably will never submit a paper to that journal again.

Isn't falsification what science is all about? I'm not sure how it is supposed to differ from fabrication.

Also, there is no column for breach of confidentiality or other reviewer abuse.

Heh, yeah, bad choice of words I guess. In this context, "falsification" means generating real data, but then messing with it until it agrees with, well, whatever you want it to agree with. Fabrication is where you just make shit up.

In my defense, I didn't come up with FFP, it's been in use for a while in discussions of scientific misconduct.

As for missing columns, I'd start with Table 1 here.

In my particular field I have seen little to no backstabbing/career theft or falsification/fabrication issues. I personally dealt with a colleague who acted like an asshole, but in the end it didnt matter. I have also dealt with very poor grant and manuscript reviews which I attribute to poor reviewers not backstabbing. My previous field was similar, both of which are molecular genetic in nature. From my discussions with colleagues and readings, I think the areas of biomedical research that are most fraught with potential problems like falsification/fabrication are those with the greater % of MDs vs PhDs doing the research, from the perspective of MDs are not usually trained scientists, even MD/PhDs often do the PhD portion of their work with MDs and not a trained PhD, which is a mistake in my opinion. Also those "hot" topics tend to have more problems due to peoples egos in needing to be the person who did/showed "X". Backstabbing can be found in many fields and has as much to do with the leaders of the field than anything else. In regards to the paleontologists in question, why would any museum/group send these people samples anymore? If they think they work in a vacuum, let them work in a vacuum.

...of course that comment was rhetorical. but you knew that.

I think your premise is flawed. It is true that bad behavior is an interface between the individual and environment but the environments are shared to large extent. Meaning that competition for kudos, even if the nature of those kudos varies tremendously, is a given and it drives people into ...interesting...behavior. And it goes beyond scientific disciplines too. Academic science, sports doping, political shenanigans...the principles are similar.

This brings me to the conclusion that if there do exist significant differences in bad acting between fields, this is more likely to be attributed to the external controls that are in place to limit the scope of individual behavior. Much less likely to be an outcome of selection for good actors, specific training or cultural practices, etc

Sabotage of colleagues' experiments should be on the list, unfortunately. Of three incidents I know of in biochemistry and molecular bio, two were in labs where the PI was out of touch or willfully blind, and the sabotage was revenge for imagined or real backstabbing or sabotage committed by the target. Good times!

I suspect that competent lab management that inculcates a spirit of cooperation means more than differences between fields; that is, the microenvironments are not "shared to a large extent", they exhibit major differences that can overcome a certain default selection for bad actors or intensify it.

By hip hip array (not verified) on 05 Feb 2008 #permalink

Sabotage of colleagues' experiments should be on the list, unfortunately.

I have been told, though of course I have no proof, that a "colleague" of mine (I use the term very loosely) used regularly to spit in my sterile pipette tips. I've been in a couple of labs where you had to use code to label your consumables -- for instance, to this day if my agar plates are unlabelled that means they're LB plus 100microg/ml ampicillin. If you didn't maintain such a code, the goods would simply be stolen out from under you.

Heh. This is kinda fun, in a sick way. Anyone else have little horror stories to share?