Liz Wager: Are men more dishonest than women?

Liz WagerFrank Wells, who is probably the UK’s first professional fraud buster, says he has “yet to meet a female research fraudster.” All the 26 cases of proven villainy he has dealt with have been men. That’s interesting, but not quite enough to fill a blog and perhaps says more about the sex ratio of senior UK researchers, at least in the past, than anything really interesting about research fraud. But, still, 0 out of 26 is pretty impressive (well done, girls!).

But I’ve just come across a report from the Office of Research Integrity (ORI), which deals with misconduct in publicly funded biomedical research in the USA (where they have been investigating such cases far more systematically and for far longer than we have in the UK). Of the 274 people caught up in misconduct investigations between 1994 and 2003, 70% were men, and the proportion actually increased slightly over this period, so it was 73% in the most recent 5 years. Only about half the ORI cases were found guilty, but this still means that 68% of the fraudsters were male.

Now, I admit that 68% is a lot less convincing than 100%, and, once again, maybe it simply reflects the sex ratio of researchers. But this isn’t just about the ranks of senior scientists where men may still predominate – about a quarter of the US fraudsters were technicians and only 5% were professors.

ORI handles only the most serious types of misconduct, namely data fabrication or falsification or plagiarism. It stays well clear of other types of questionable behaviour and doesn’t get involved with authorship disputes. Another fascinating observation about scientists who behave badly is that, by the time they are brought to book, they have usually committed a string of offences. Cases of research misconduct are virtually never isolated incidents. So the sex ratio (if it isn’t an artefact) is fascinating, because it might give a clue to the psychopathology of this behaviour. Male (and female) researchers, please let me know what you think!

Further reading:
Wells F, Farthing M, eds. Fraud and misconduct in biomedical research. 4ed. London: Royal Society of Medicine Press, 2008:73.

Rhoades LJ. ORI closed investigations into misconduct allegations involving research supported by the public health service: 1994-2003. ORI, 2004.

Liz Wager is a freelance writer, trainer and publications consultant who works for a number of pharmaceutical companies, communication agencies, publishers and academic institutions. She is also the Chair of COPE (the Committee On Publication Ethics) and a member of the BMJ’s Ethics Committee.