Male Scientists More Prone to Misconduct, Study Concludes

Gender inequality. Male researchers appear to be involved in misconduct more frequently than female scientists.


Male scientists—especially at the upper echelons of the profession—are far more likely than women to commit misconduct. That's the bottom line of a new analysis by three microbiologists of wrongdoing in the life sciences in the United States. Ferric Fang of the University of Washington, Seattle; Joan Bennett of Rutgers University; and Arturo Casadevall of Albert Einstein College of Medicine combed through misconduct reports on 228 people released by the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI) over the last 19 years. They then compared the gender balance—or imbalance, in this case—against the mix of male and female senior scientists and trainees to gauge whether misconduct was more prevalent among men.

Here's what they found and published today in mBio: A remarkable 88% of faculty members who committed misconduct were men, or 63 out of 72 individuals. The number of women in that group was one-third of what one would expect based on female representation in the life sciences (the field that accounts for the overwhelming majority of ORI cases). The trend seems clear, but the authors did admit that "[w]e cannot exclude the possibility that females commit research misconduct as frequently as males but are less likely to be detected."

Among trainees, the gender gap narrowed, although men were still overrepresented. Sixty-nine percent of postdocs were male, and 58% of students, both of which are higher than the proportion of men in those groups.

Many interventions to prevent misconduct, the authors note, focus on trainees, even though faculty members comprise 32% of cases. Principal investigators "are a legitimate target for interventions to improve ethics," Fang says. And "they also, more than anyone else, create the environment in which science is performed."

Look for a broad feature on Fang and Casadevall's work on scientific integrity in this week's issue of Science.