Fraudulent data: Ethics in research

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The Freakonomics Radio podcast aired an episode on scientific fraud. While the title of the episode leans toward hyperbole, the discussion is a bit more nuanced. We don’t actually know how much fraud there is, but we know that researchers have many reasons to be tempted to cheat—just like students have many reasons to be tempted to cheat.

Here are some discussion or assignment questions based on the podcast. Shout out to Ellen Carpenter for the prompting.

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Listen to or read the transcript of this Freakonomics Radio podcast, Episode 527: Why is there so much fraud in academia? (Dubner, 2024).

The podcast host, Stephen J. Dubner, says: “I rarely do this, but today I’m going to start by reading a couple sentences from Freakonomics, which Steve Levitt and I published in 2005: ‘Cheating,’ we wrote, “may or may not be human nature, but it is certainly a prominent feature in just about every human endeavor … Cheating is a primordial economic act: getting more for less.’”

  1. Perhaps you have cheated at least once in school, at work, or in a relationship. You certainly know people who have. Describe one of those cheating incidents in terms of “getting more for less.” Explain cheating behavior in terms of positive reinforcement.

  2. Brian Nosek, founder of the Center for Open Science, explains why academic fraud is so problematic. One reason he gives is the impact fraudulent research can have on public policy. The reach is greater than that, however. Describe how fraudulent research can affect public views on a topic and how it can affect other researchers in their decisions on what to research.

  3. Nosek says, “Publication is the currency of advancement. I need publications to have a career, to advance my career, to get promoted…The reality here is that there is a reward system, and I have to have a career in order to do that research. And so, yes, we can talk all about those ideals of transparency and sharing and rigor, reproducibility. But if they’re not part of the reward system, you’re asking me to either behave by my ideals and not have a career or have a career and sacrifice some of those ideals.” Is the motivation any different from the one that students have to cheat? Explain.

  4. While the podcast host tries to pin Nosek down into saying that there is more fraudulent research in psychology—social psychology in particular—than other sciences. Nosek points out that this perception of greater academic fraud in social psychology may be due to two factors. What are they?

The issue of academic fraud is certainly not limited to psychology. For example, the journal Science has been addressing this issue. Recent editorials include how “errors, intentional or not erode confidence in science” and how researchers should be able to correct unintentional errors in their published work without stigma (Thorp, 2023, p. 743), the use of an AI tool to detect duplications of or manipulations in images submitted for publication so that questions can be addressed before publication (Thorp, 2024), and the challenges involved in identifying scientific misconduct (Oransky & Redman, 2024).  

5. Briefly describe the research that was published in the sign-at-the-top paper. What data had Max Brazerman concerned? How were his concerns about that data alleviated? How did Data Colada know to look at the sign-at-the-top paper? What in the paper concerned Data Colada?

6. What reasons does Simine Vazire give for why a researcher may falsify or misrepresent research data?

7. At state universities, legislatures have substantially cut funding (Marcus, 2019). Colleagues—especially those at R1 and R2 universities—report that they are under a lot of pressure to bring in grant money. To compete for the limited amount of grant dollars available, researchers must have an active research program that produces results. Would there be as much temptation to cheat if everyone could do their research without pressure to publish? Similarly, would students feel less temptation to cheat if their work was lower stakes?

8. The American Psychological Association’s (APA’s) Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct clearly addresses falsification of data in 8.10 “Reporting Research Results” (American Psychological Association, 2017). APA can only hold members of APA accountable for their code of ethics. Frankly, the worst that APA can do is expel members who have been found in violation of the code (American Psychological Association, 2016). Universities have their own ethics committees and wield more power in the sense that faculty found in violation of the ethics code could, ultimately, be fired. What could professional associations or universities do to ensure ethical research practices before fraudulent research is published?  

 

References

American Psychological Association. (2016). 2016 APA Ethics Committee rules and procedures. https://www.apa.org/ethics/code/committee-2016

American Psychological Association. (2017). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. https://www.apa.org/ethics/code

Dubner, S. J. (2024, January 10). Why is there so much fraud in academia? Freakonomics. https://freakonomics.com/podcast/why-is-there-so-much-fraud-in-academia/

Marcus, J. (2019, February 26). Most Americans don’t realize state funding for higher ed fell by billions. PBS NewsHour. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/education/most-americans-dont-realize-state-funding-for-higher-ed-fell-...

Oransky, I., & Redman, B. (2024). Rooting out scientific misconduct. Science, 383(6679), 131–131. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.adn9352

Thorp, H. H. (2023). Correction is courageous. Science, 382(6672), 743–743. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.adm8205

Thorp, H. H. (2024). Genuine images in 2024. Science, 383(6678), 7–7. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.adn7530

   

 

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About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.