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n the past decade, only three scientists in the United States have gone to prison for crimes relating to research misconduct.

But if public sentiment guides public policy, scofflaw scientists and other jailbirds might soon find themselves cellmates. Turns out Americans appear to favor stiff penalties, including prison terms, for researchers who get caught fabricating their data.

It’s not that researchers don’t break the law; some do, by falsifying results in government-funded studies or other bad behavior. Rather, society — and the legal system — has long viewed scientific misdeeds as victimless crimes better punished by shame and professional exile than time behind bars.

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But there is precedent for prison time for scientific misconduct, particularly if it involves federally funded research. Take the case of Dong-Pyou Han, who is serving a nearly five-year sentence for faking the results of HIV vaccine research in rabbits. That case caught the attention of a US attorney, but only after Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) made a lot of noise about the light sanctions Han received from the Office of Research Integrity. It’s not clear whether that agency rarely refers cases to the Department of Justice for potential prosecution, or if the DOJ rarely pursues them. Either way, it’s an extremely infrequent occurrence.

A recent survey of roughly 1,800 people in the United States found that 90 percent of those who responded believe that fabricating data is morally repugnant. Preferred punishments include being blacklisted from university positions and being banned from government funding for future research, but don’t end there.

“Most respondents who support criminalization prefer a sentence of incarceration, rather than a fine and/or probation,” according to the researchers, Justin Pickett and Sean Patrick Roche, both of the University at Albany. “The results indicate that slightly over half of all Americans would prefer both to criminalize data fraud and to sentence fraudsters to a period of incarceration.”

By the way, those numbers jibe with our own informal poll on the question, which found that about 82 percent of respondents would like to see data cheats charged as criminals.

If Pickett and Roche’s results — which were submitted to a preprint server and are now under consideration for publication — are to be believed, the mood of the country is even harsher. Most people in the survey said they also found selective reporting of data — throwing out results that don’t support your narrative, for example — to be morally reprehensible. And more than one-third said it should be criminalized, and that it should lead to university and funding bans. Of those, 21 percent said selective reporters of data deserved to go to jail.

However, Pickett told STAT that the results “definitely don’t signify a distrust in science. The respondents had incredibly positive views about science in general. … The punitiveness we observe likely reflects the belief that dishonesty by those who are supposed to be objective and disinterested, and who have so much influence, is especially bad. As my mother told me when I asked her about it: ‘What can we possibly do if we cannot trust scientists?’”

What, indeed!

Punishing the bad actors may have a couple of benefits. It could help us feel like we’re addressing some of science’s problems. And it may create a deterrent against future crimes, although some have said — without evidence, best we can tell — that it might dissuade researchers from coming forth about concerns, since they would be afraid of the sanctions for colleagues. But, it doesn’t solve the larger problem of science’s perverse incentives that are, many argue, encouraging ethical lapses in the first place.

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  • Falsifying results is not a victimless crime.Any officer or directors of pharmacuitical companies should be jailed if they are found to have encouraged the falsifying of results as well as those doing the falsifying.Especially considering the victims of vaccines.

  • Auslogics is an undercover trojan that ruins computer systems. This company, the people who operate it, and the workers who comply to this disgusting operation should all be jailed.

  • People who manipulate data do not care two hoots. If US is tough to manipulate data and cheat they disappear into the wilderness of Europe. If life gets tough there, they go to Australia. All their life they have manipulated data and they do not know how to present an original data and get funding. Federal funding cheats should get a jail term.

  • Of course there should be a harsh punishment for use(probablly) of tax payers’ grants money to fool the citizens while living on their monies. Remember some of the evolution fakes: Pithicanthropus,
    Nebraska Man,
    Piltdown Man, Australopithecines “Lucy”, Peking man,
    Rhodesian Man, etc

  • The very idea that misconduct is a victimless crime is profoundly repugnant. Researchers harm sufferers of disease.

    The arguments from respondents below can be applied to non-scientist criminals also. Those who oppose prison terms for somebody who shot their daughters can make that argument. But please do not use a special pleading fallacy to protect scientists from facing justice for deliberate harmful acts of at least as large a magnitude.

    If it deters Bubba the murderer, it will deter Albert the fraud, who would go on to kill even more people using a widely-cited fraudulent paper. It will also wake up a few administrators.

    I have come to the conclusion that science is incapable of governing itself. It cares about careers. It does not care about truth or people suffering from diseases.

    A little exposure to Bubba the cellmate will do the field good, and will make it a safer place for honest scientists.

  • The very idea that misconduct is a victimless crime is profoundly repugnant. Researchers harm sufferers of disease.

    The arguments from respondents below can be applied to non-scientist criminals also. Those who oppose prison terms for somebody who shot their daughters can make that argument. But please do not use a special pleading fallacy to protect scientists from facing justice for deliberate harmful acts of at least as large a magnitude.

    If it deters Bubba the murderer, it will deter Albert the fraud, who would go on to kill even more people using a widely-cited fraudulent paper. It will also wake up a few administrators.

    I have come to the conclusion that science is incapable of governing itself. It cares about careers. It does not care about truth or people suffering from diseases.

    A little exposure to Bubba the cellmate will do the field good, and will make it a safer place for honest scientists.

    Readers of this comment are honest, right? Not all misconduct is accidental.

  • Actually, Americans are less punitive now than at any other time since the 1960s (Enns, 2016 – “The Incarceration Nation”; Ramirez, 2013 – “Punitive Sentiment”). For most nonviolent offenses, evidently scientific fraud not included, the public actually prefers community sanctions (Thielo, Cullen, Cohen, and Couchy, 2015 – “Rehabilitation in a Red State”).

  • Unfortunately, if the real priority is to deal with fraud in research quickly and transparently, incarcerating people against whom findings of research misconduct are made would be incredibly unproductive. It’s already too difficult and time-consuming to correct the science as it is right now; if unethical scientists knew they were facing a jail sentence rather than just professional exile, they would fight institutional investigators and ORI every step of the way, every time.

    As it is, we necessarily have to rely on the cooperation of involved parties sometimes if we’re going to correct the scientific record appropriately. If somebody really wants to cross their arms and stomp their feet and proclaim their innocence ’til they’re blue in the face, they can make life very difficult for an institution looking into allegations. Presently, we do get a fair number of people who admit their misconduct and settle allegations without much fuss. But we also have individuals as parties to allegations who immediately involve attorneys, and behave much like Mr. Trump in refusing to admit even the tiniest bit of wrongdoing. The public who write angry comments on blogs accusing institutions, journals, and the government of ignoring their oft-reported, favorite apparently-falsified bit of data from the literature are very justified in their frustration, but they don’t see the side of the story where the scientists who review allegations of misconduct are being strong-armed by lawyers and an already unnecessarily drawn-out process, and therefore can’t take any meaningful action until they navigate a legal minefield. If folks’ freedom is legitimately at stake, I can only see frequent legal, evidenciary and procedural objections getting more and more integral to every single misconduct investigation.

    The policies in the US Federal Code generally hold research misconduct proceedings to a “preponderance of the evidence” standard. This is often explained as “51% sure” as opposed to the much higher legal standard used in criminal courts, “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In my experience, lawyers representing misconduct respondents often have difficulty working within the lesser legal standard, and the scientific approach of those usually applying it, where uncertainty is certain. Scientists likewise due to their skeptical approach are often overweighing shadows-of-doubts, making themselves vulnerable to legal bullying. I just see it making my job more difficult.

  • It costs us money to put someone in a jail, feed them give them free health care keep them warm or cool etc. A substantial fine makes more sense, except that many fraudsters will have innocent spouses and children who’d suffer collateral damage.

    • Good point. Jail is mostly punitive. Researchers who engage in fraud should be prevented from doing further research, to protect the public from their academic/scientific dishonesty.

    • Quite. I think this survey just reflects the US’s current vogue for criminalizing and jailing even relatively minor misbehaviour. Blacklisting and fining is appropriate but jailing all but the most serious offenders (ie those who harm people or misappropriate large sums) is just a waste of taxpayer money whilst actually harming society – we don’t need yet another unemployable person because they’ve served time.

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