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Deconstructing academic fraud

Academic fraud is larger and more complex than some might think, and it takes many forms. Prestigious professors and researchers are routinely investigated for falsifying and fabricating data. Here the authors examine why this happens and how best to detect and prevent this kind of wrongdoing.

In 2011, Diederik Stapel was a psychologist at Tilburg University in the Netherlands at the pinnacle of his academic career. He was dean of the university’s School of Social and Behavioral Sciences and had a prestigious reputation in academic circles. But that same year, Stapel came under suspicion for fraud, unleashing a chain of events that led to his dismissal after an investigation concluded he’d falsified 55 of his publications and 10 Ph.D. dissertations written by his students.

Subsequently, Stapel freely admitted that ambition and a desire for the limelight had driven him to fake data and fabricate studies that never took place. The former professor avoided criminal punishment by reaching a deal with Dutch prosecutors to complete 120 hours of community service and forgo disability and illness benefits that would’ve been part of his salary. His reputation as a serious academic was shattered. (See “The Mind of a Con Man,” by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, The New York Times Magazine, April 26, 2013; “Diederik Stapel settles with Dutch prosecutors, won’t face jail time,” by Ivan Oransky, Retraction Watch, June 28, 2013; and “Fabrication: The Diederik Stapel case,” by Elisabeth Bik, Science Integrity Digest, July 16, 2019.)

Stapel’s case isn’t an isolated example. In 2013, for example, biomedical researcher Dong-Pyou Han was forced to resign from Iowa State for fabricating and falsifying data in HIV vaccine experiments funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Initially the U.S. Office of Research Integrity banned Han from receiving federal grants for three years, but a federal prosecutor went further and filed criminal charges. In February 2015, Han pleaded guilty to two felony charges of making false statements to obtain NIH grants and later received a 57-month prison sentence. (See “Korean prosecutors seek jail time for professors in massive plagiarism scheme,” by Mark Zastrow, Retraction Watch, Dec. 23, 2015.)

And more recently, so-called data sleuths Elisabeth Bik and Sholto David, microbiologists who blog about scientific integrity, said they found evidence of data falsification in scientific studies at two Havard affiliate institutions, leading to retractions and corrections in academic journals. (See “Harvard Professor’s Papers Contain Copied Images, Says Science Sleuth,” by Nidhi Subbaraman, The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 1, 2024; “US vaccine researcher sentenced to prison for fraud,” by Sara Reardon, Nature, July 1, 2015; and “Dana-Farber to Retract 6 Papers, Correct 31 Following Data Manipulation Claims,” by Veronica H. Paulus and Akshaya Ravi, The Harvard Crimson, Jan. 22, 2024.)

No industry, even those the public tends to believe are more trustworthy and ethical than others, is immune to fraud. And higher education is no exception. The research and academic world might seem prestigious and scientifically sound, as it contains groups of highly educated and intellectually curious people collaborating to advance the quality of knowledge and improve lives. But like other professions, academics are subject to pressures and temptations that can tip them into fraudulent territory. Maintaining a decent job can require the ability to get published frequently, often in prestigious journals. “Publish or perish” is a refrain that rings true throughout academia.

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