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Originally published Saturday, March 16, 2013 at 4:00 PM

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Op-ed: Why people cheat and what needs to change

Why people cheat in sports, banking and science, according to guest columnists Ferric C. Fang and Arturo Casadevall.

Special to The Times

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EVERY month seems to bring a new cheating scandal. In sports, Lance Armstrong has apologized for doping to win seven Tour de France titles. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, tainted by suspicions of doping, were shut out of baseball’s Hall of Fame. Three major banks have agreed to settle allegations of manipulating the Libor interest-rate index, with more still under investigation.

Cheating in science creates fewer headlines but arguably has a greater impact on society. The scientific community has witnessed high-profile scandals in fields ranging from autism to stem-cell research and cancer biology.

With our colleague Grant Steen of MediCC! Medical Communications Consultants we recently analyzed more than 2,000 retracted scientific articles and found that most were retracted for misconduct.

While cheating is not inevitable, the impact is profound.

With Rutgers University Professor Joan Bennett, we subsequently examined the cases of 228 scientists sanctioned by the U.S. Office of Research Integrity, including Paul Muchowski, a neuroscientist and University of Washington alumnus who fabricated data to obtain a research grant as a faculty member at the University of California, San Francisco. Muchowski has since resigned his position at the Gladstone Institute of Neurological Disease.

We found that misconduct involves all levels of the scientific workforce, from faculty members to technicians, and male scientists are more likely to be sanctioned for cheating than their female counterparts. Men are also overrepresented among athletes who dope and among top banking executives. It is well known that men are more likely than women to take risks, commit crimes and exhibit competitive behavior.

While it may be tempting to ascribe the male skew to biology, cheating is also strongly influenced by environmental factors.

Competitiveness and dishonesty can become more evident under stress. Manipulation of the Libor may have been motivated in part by a desire by banks to conceal weaknesses during the global recession.

Today’s scientists are under enormous stress after a decade of stagnant funding, which has intensified competition for grants and reduced job opportunities. The dismal funding rates in science, made even worse by sequestration, will have long-term detrimental consequences for research productivity and for the future of the country.

While individuals are responsible for their own conduct, it is also clear that cultures can encourage cheating.

In sports, the perception that doping is widespread makes it easier for athletes to rationalize dishonesty. Armstrong could not have maintained his deception without the help of his teammates and trainers.

An unnamed banking insider told The Daily Telegraph that “everyone knew” about Libor manipulation and “everyone was doing it.” In fact, bank executives awarded hefty bonuses to traders who engaged in flagrantly dishonest behavior.

Surveys similarly report that one out of every seven scientists has witnessed other scientists committing fraud, and most have seen other questionable research practices. Seeing others get away with cheating leads to more cheating. In sports, banking and science, cheating can permeate the entire hierarchy from trainer to coach, trader to chief executive, and student to professor. Even when those in charge do not themselves cheat, they may bear responsibility for creating or enabling a culture that fosters cheating.

Athletes, bankers and scientists have the same motivation for cheating: the rewards go to those who come in first.

As Armstrong told Oprah Winfrey, “It was win at all costs.” Few can recall who came in second in the Tour de France. Sports benefit from a winner-take-all philosophy because heightened competition enhances entertainment value.

Does no-holds-barred competition among bankers and scientists similarly benefit society? Although a winner-take-all system may promote healthy competition and rapid disclosure of discoveries in science, are the benefits worth the costs?

After all, the costs of cheating are considerable. Cheaters tarnish their fields.

Disgraced sports heroes lose endorsements and let down their fans. Honest competitors fail to receive their due. Financial scandals undermine investor confidence and engender public cynicism. Bogus scientific discoveries misdirect other scientists, misinform the public and harm patients.

With so many pressing challenges awaiting scientific solutions, the loss of scientific credibility is something that scientists and society cannot afford.

The good news is that cheating is not inevitable. The most potent counterweight may be the human conscience and its innate sense of fairness. Honor codes, heightened awareness of the risks and consequences of dishonesty, and consistent enforcement of rules can encourage individuals to do the right thing.

Whistleblowers, who often play a critical role in exposing misconduct, must be protected. Self-reinforcing cultures of fraud can be replaced with cultures of honesty.

Reward systems can be restructured to reduce incentives for cheating and to recognize those who play by the rules. In sports, a more proportional distribution of prize money and an emphasis on team achievement may lessen the temptation to cheat.

Banking executives should be promoted only if they adhere to ethical behavior and not merely on the basis of profits. Traders who break the rules should be denied bonuses.

Reforming the culture of science will require a renewed societal investment in the scientific enterprise and the creation of additional opportunities for young scientists. Most science today represents a collaborative effort, and we should seek better ways to recognize all who contribute to solving an important problem, not just individuals.

The costs of cheating are too great to accept the status quo. Armstrong once said, “Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place.” Unfortunately, the pain of scientific fraud endures.

Ferric C. Fang, left, is professor of Laboratory Medicine and Microbiology at the University of Washington School of Medicine. Arturo Casadevall is the Leo and Julia Forchheimer Chair in Microbiology and Immunology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.


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