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Who Should Catch Fraud?

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticNovember 2, 2011 6:24 PM


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Whose job is it to detect scientific fraud?

You've probably heard of Diederik Stapel, a Dutch psychologist who's just admitted to scientific fraud on a grand scale, with dozens and maybe over 100 papers published based on made-up data. This comes just months after Harvard's Marc Hauser resigned over unspecified data-meddling activities.


What disturbs me is not just that this fraud happened, but the way it was detected. Both Stapel and Hauser were busted by their own junior lab members. Browsing Retraction Watch and reading over other fraud cases reveals that fraud is almost always detected either by 1) By readers of published papers who notice oddities in the data, or 2) by internal whistleblowers, almost always junior lab members

But these are both ad hoc methods. They rely heavily on individual vigilance and courage in speaking out (especially in the latter case). It seems to me that there's no working mechanism for catching fraud. If there were, such acts of individual heroism wouldn't be needed.

So whose job is it to catch fraud? At the moment, it's all the work of private investigators. Where are the police?

First off, is it the job of journals? That seems plausible. Journals publish scientific papers and by doing so they are saying, implicitly, that the papers are good quality. The way this works is meant to be through peer review.But peer review is failing to catch many cases of fraud. I guess we don't know how many fraudlent papers are caught at the peer review stage and never published. But one would hope that such cases would come to light anyway because reviewers who suspect fraud ought to alert the relevant authorities. I can't think of any recent cases in which fraud investigations were started by peer reviewers, or at least not that we know about.

Maybe it's up to the institution that employs the fraudster? It's the institution that carries out investigations, "convicts" the fraudster and enacts the punishment. Clearly it's in their interests to do this because they don't want to be seen as soft on misconduct. But rarely do they go out and proactively try and catch or prevent fraud. It's not in their interests to do that.

Undetected fraud does no harm to anyone's reputation. On the contrary fraudsters are often the "stars" of their faculty until they get caught. Hauser and Stapel were. Plus, a department that got a reputation for hard-hitting anti-fraud measures might struggle to recruit people, even perfectly innocent ones who just found it annoying.

So what we see is departments who perform (fairly) good investigations into fraud, but only when someone else tells them to.

Maybe it's the funding bodies? They're paying for the research, so they clearly have an interest in making sure their money is well spent. At present, though, they lack the mechanisms to investigate it.

So those are the three possibilites as I see them - journals, institutions and grant awarders. While all of these organizations have policies for investigating and punishing fraud when it comes to light, they rarely (if ever) actually catch it, leaving this hazardous and stressful job to individuals.

Is there a better way?

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