What leads a researcher down the road to fraud? It's always disturbing when a scientist is caught cheating, writes Ohio State University's Jennifer Crocker in Nature News. Most recently, social psychologist Diederik Stapel of Tilburg University in the Netherlands admitted to fabricating data used in much of his research. "Such cases of outright fraud in science are distressing for many reasons. For example, they damage the careers of students and collaborators, and raise doubts about all papers by the same author," Crocker says. "Most importantly, they damage public trust in science and in scientists."
But how does it happen? You would think researchers know falsifying data is wrong, but it usually starts very small and escalates, Crocker says. "By the time such fraud is exposed, bad choices that would usually lead to only minor transgressions have escalated into outright career-killing behavior," she adds. The perfect example is Stanley Milgram's work in the 1960s which showed how easy it is for people to start on the "slippery slope" to doing something wrong and end up betraying everything they consider right, Crocker says. The first tiny step in research fraud — dropping an inconvenient data point or not crediting a co-author — can lead to worse.
"The well-being of science and our society requires that fraud be punished severely. But a heavy focus on fraudsters may also conveniently divert our attention from the fraudster within us all," Crocker says. And since major fraud begins with small steps, she adds, the question becomes, "how can we stop the slide?"