Recent news about unusually serious scientific misconduct by psychologist Diederik Stapel (he made up the data in more than 30 papers; see coverage here and here) got me thinking about scientific misconduct, or the apparent lack thereof, in ecology and evolutionary biology.
Scientific misconduct is rare in general, but it seems to be especially rare in ecology and evolutionary biology. For instance, my quick perusal of Retraction Watch doesn’t reveal any retractions of ecology or evolutionary biology papers due to scientific misconduct. And thinking further back in time (Retraction Watch hasn’t been operating for very long), the only cases that I can recall are those of Anders Pape Møller (a misconduct case which included retraction of an Oikos paper; see coverage here, here, here, here, and here), and the recent case of Stephen J. Gould apparently fudging data in order to be able to accuse someone else of fudging data (Lewis et al. 2011). It’s my impression, which I freely admit is not backed up by quantitative analysis, that misconduct is more frequently reported in other fields, and that the differences are larger than can be accounted for by differences in the number of people working in those fields.
Assuming purely for the sake of argument that my impression is correct, why might that be? I mean, it’s not as if ecologists and evolutionary biologists aren’t under pressure and so don’t engage in misconduct because they have no incentive to do so. Academics in all fields are under a lot of pressure to publish, get grants, etc. And it’s not as if ecologists and evolutionary biologists are more likely to get caught than researchers in other fields, thereby deterring them from engaging in misconduct. Indeed, ecologists and evolutionary biologists surely are less likely to get caught, because in contrast to, say, cell and molecular biologists, we only rarely attempt to truly replicate one another’s work, in part (but only in part) because true replication often is impossible (Palmer 2000). It’s failed attempts at replication that often lead to the discovery of fakery and fraud.
I’d like to think that ecologists and evolutionary biologists are, as a group, especially honest and ethical, even for scientists. But there’s a little part of me that worries that we’d never know if that weren’t true. Because detecting fraud is even harder in ecology and evolution than in other fields, and because potential fraudsters will know that and so will be less likely to be deterred by the possibility of being caught.
Honestly, I have no idea if this is something we ecologists and evolutionary biologists ought to worry about, or what we’d do differently if we were worried about it. It’s just a thought I had, that I thought I’d throw out there.