A recent investigation of academic fraud in Singapore revealed that four researchers have fabricated data in six scientific papers. Interestingly, the four are recipients of funding from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) (a public-sector agency in Singapore) and the National Research Foundation Singapore. Consequently, they either quit or were dismissed from their positions. Two of the four researchers also had their PhDs revoked.

With such serious consequences facing those found to have committed academic fraud, particularly to their careers and reputation, it begs the question: Why would one risk putting themselves in such a precarious situation in the first place?

The carrot: Financial incentives

For starters, researchers may be willing to gamble due to the final incentives. According to a scientist for Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and the National University of Singapore (NUS), professors’ research efforts are taken into consideration when determining their remuneration and performance bonus.

Hence, if their research is ground-breaking, a researcher may accordingly expect a more lucrative reward. Researchers are also human, who may succumb to greed. As such, these financial incentives may be difficult to pass up, forcing them to think of ‘creative’ means to obtain them.

"The consequences [of fraud] can be very, very harsh, and can destroy your career, if not your life. But if you give people such huge rewards [for ground-breaking research], they may think that the reward is worth the risk," opined a scientist who worked at NTU and NUS, who declined to be named.

The stick: The ‘publish or perish’ pressure

Does this mean that researchers guilty of academic misconduct can be pegged as individuals purely driven by greed?

Before that, one must also consider the pressures that loom over them, if they do not deliver as expected by the institutions they represent. Especially in recent years, Singapore’s institutions have achieved international recognition, which includes the Times Higher Education World University Rankings – NUS now ranks 22nd, while NTU ranks 52nd.

A likely consequence to such staggering success is the pressure on universities to remain competitive in the quality of their research and output. Therefore, the possibility of the pressure being inevitably passed onto their academicians and researchers, exists.

A representative from NUS confirmed that the expectation from its faculty is to "carry out cutting-edge research and have it published in leading journals".

Dutch psychologist, Diederik Stapel, is no stranger to pressure. He admitted to succumbing to it, which led him to make up data and fake his research which were published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, including Science.

Dutch psychologist, Diederik Stapel, claimed he perpetrated academic fraud due to pressures faced. Photo credit: Koos Breukel/The New York Times
Dutch psychologist, Diederik Stapel, claimed he perpetrated academic fraud due to pressures faced. Photo credit: Koos Breukel/The New York Times

In expressing his remorse over his actions, he admitted to adjusting and faking research “not just once, but many several times, and not just briefly, but over a long period of time”.

He explained that he “was not able to withstand the pressure to score points, to publish, to always have to be better”. On a personal level, he also revealed that he “wanted too much, too fast”.

He is not alone.

Eric Poehlman, a researcher based in the United States, echoed the same reality of being under pressure. He pleaded guilty to the United States District Court to lying on applications, through which he obtained federal grants worth millions of dollars from the National Institutes of Health. He also admitted to fabricating more than a decade’s worth of scientific data on obesity, menopause and aging.

As part of his explanation, he said that he was driven to secure grants which could pay the salaries of those in the labs that depended on him for it. He told the court, “I take full responsibility for the type of position that I had that was so grant-dependent. But it created a maladaptive behaviour pattern. I was on a treadmill, and I couldn’t get off.”

Eric Poehlman was the first US scientist to be imprisoned for research misconduct unrelated to fatalities. His sentence was for a year and a day in federal prison.

The debate ensues

Experts disagree on the extent pressure on researchers leads to academic misconduct.
Experts disagree on the extent pressure on researchers leads to academic misconduct.

With much at stake – including the perception on the integrity of publicly funded scientific research and the reputation of all stakeholders – continuous effort is necessary to minimise, if not eliminate, future academic fraud as far as it is possible. To do so, it is relevant to consider the correlation between pressures to publish and misconduct.

Unfortunately, this is not a straightforward issue as the experts themselves have not arrived at a consensus on it.

A study published in 2014 concluded that not only was scientific misconduct more prevalent than expected, but also that it was driven by strong publication pressure on scientists. This finding was based on a survey to Flemish biomedical scientists, which revealed that 72% of them found the pressure to publish was “too high”, and 15% of them admitting to fabricating, falsifying, plagiarising or manipulating data within the three years before the study.

Additionally, another study found that scientists from nations with higher pressures to published are in fact “less-likely to produce retracted papers, and more likely to correct them”. The study concluded that scientific fraud is more likely to take place where research integrity policies are lacking and “individual publication performance is rewarded with cash”, amongst others.

As such, instead of alleviating pressures on scientists, the study suggests that misconduct should be reduced by “promoting research integrity policies, improving mentoring and training, and encouraging transparent communication amongst researchers”. MIMS

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