Blame nature, blame nurture. Overall, men are simply more physically and socially aggressive than women. As noted here last week in an article about violence, men are three times more likely than women to commit robbery, eight times more likely to be arrested for murder, and 13 times more likely to be arrested for a sexual offense. They cheat on their partners more than women do (though just barely, recent data suggest). In high school, a recent survey shows boys lie, cheat and steal more often than girls do.
Perhaps it’s unsurprising that, even within the ostensibly enlightened and hallowed halls of the academy, men are more likely than women to commit research misconduct, too. According to a study published today in mBio, an open-access journal of the American Society for Microbiology, data on ethical misconduct from the last two decades show men fabricate, falsify, plagiarize in disproportionately more than their female counterparts.
Researchers from the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx looked at all cases since 1994 in which academics were officially sanctioned for misconduct by the federal Office of Research Integrity (ORI), which investigates misconduct in research supported by the Department of Health and Human Services. They looked at 228 cases in all, 94 percent of which involved some sort of fraud. In all but one, they were able to determine the gender of the offender.
A full 65 percent of misconduct offenses, they found, were committed by men. Those proportions changed as they moved up the academic ladder: For example, among faculty members, 88 percent of the misconduct cases involved males; among post-doctorates, 69 percent were male; among students, 58 percent were male.
Among students and post-docs, the numbers break nearly even with the gender distribution of students when looking at all science and engineering research. But when confined to the life sciences—to which “nearly all” cases of misconduct investigated by the ORI belonged—those numbers got way out of proportion. For example, that 88 percent among faculty members is quite high considering males represent only about 70 percent of life science faculty. As shown in the graph below, that discrepancy shows up among life science post-docs, and is even more pronounce among life science students.
The researchers admit it is a relatively small sample size—and that it’s possible women are simply better at getting away with it. But their questions assume there’s something afoot. “Does competition for prestige and resources disproportionately drive misconduct among male scientists?” they ask rhetorically. “Are women more sensitive to the threat of sanctions? Is gender a correlate of integrity?”
Whatever the answers are, they may explain why fewer women occupy positions of prestige in academia, researchers say. “Many women are totally turned off by the maneuverings and starkly competitive way of the academic workplace,” said Joan W. Bennett, a co-author of the study and a professor of plant biology and pathology at Rutgers University. “Cheating on the system is just one of many factors that induce women to leave academe and seek professional careers in other environments.”
In conducting their research, the authors noted another discrepancy as well: Where they had expected misconduct to be more prevalent among trainees competing with one another to build names for themselves, quite the opposite was true. Students and post-doc fellows combined for just 41 percent of the misconduct cases examined—16 and 25 percent, respectively. A full 32 percent were committed by faculty, with the remaining falling to “other research personnel.”
The pattern is clear. Misconduct increases as you go up the ladder, not down.
What’s causing that disturbing trend? Researchers don’t go too far to speculate, but note that “The [National Institutes of Health] currently mandates training in the responsible conduct of research for students and postdocs receiving support from training grants”—in other words, not faculty (my emphasis). It suggests the self-policing efforts of the life science community may be misdirected.
For as little as it says about the integrity of our scientific elders, it could portend better things to come. Interestingly, in a study of 23,000 high school kids noted above, the Josephson Institute of Ethics found that although boys were more duplicitous than girls, the number of liars, cheaters and stealers overall had dropped in each category over the last few years.
To hear some Baby Boomers tell it, you could practically hear the giant pop of a million coke-fueled erections when Gordon Gecko first told young, professional Americans that “Greed is Good.” But maybe the “Me Generation” is beginning to give way to something better. Is it possible that, despite all the narcissism documented among younger Americans today, the same generation of future scientists is ushering in a new era of ethicality?