In 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.
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?’”
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.