updated 6/8/2005 1:59:31 PM ET 2005-06-08T17:59:31

While rare cases of scientific fraud grab headlines, more mundane misbehaviors are so common among researchers that they pose a threat to the integrity of the scientific enterprise, a new report asserts.

One-third of scientists surveyed said that within the previous three years, they’d engaged in at least one practice that would probably get them into trouble, the report said. Examples included circumventing minor aspects of rules for doing research on people and overlooking a colleague’s use of flawed data or questionable interpretation of data.

Such behaviors are “primarily flying below the radar screen right now,” said Brian C. Martinson of the HealthPartners Research Foundation in Minneapolis, who presents the survey results with colleagues in a commentary in Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature.

Scientists “can no longer remain complacent about such misbehavior,” the commentary says.

But “I don’t think we’ve been complacent,” said Mark S. Frankel, director of the Scientific Freedom, Responsibility & Law Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Frankel, who wasn’t involved in the survey, said its results didn’t surprise him. But he said that the survey sampled only a slice of the scientific community and shouldn’t be taken as applying to all scientists.

More than 3,000 scientists surveyed
The survey included results from 3,247 scientists, roughly 40 percent of those who were sent the questionnaire in 2002. They were researchers based in the United States who’d received funding from the National Institutes of Health. Most were studying biology, medicine or the social sciences, with others in chemistry and a smaller group in math, physics or engineering.

Of the 10 practices that Martinson’s study described as the most serious, less than 2 percent of respondents admitted to falsifying data, plagiarism or ignoring major aspects of rules for conducting studies with human subjects. But nearly 8 percent said they’d circumvented what they judged to be minor aspects of such requirements. The survey questions didn’t name those specific points.

Nearly 13 percent of those who responded said they’d overlooked “others’ use of flawed data or questionable interpretation of data,” and nearly 16 percent said they had changed the design, methods or results of a study “in response to pressure from a funding source.”

Confusing questions?
Martinson said the first question referred to other researchers in their own lab, and the second question referred to pressure from companies funding their work.

But David Clayton, vice president and chief scientific officer at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which focuses on biomedical research, said he found both questions worded so vaguely that they could be referring to perfectly acceptable activities.

Clayton also says it’s not clear whether the behaviors addressed in the survey have been increasing or declining over time.

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