A series of two studies published in Research Ethics have found that most scholars believe themselves to be moral and predict they will continue behaving morally, that scientific misconduct is frequently noticed by both researchers and their managers, and that perceived publication pressure and willingness to engage in future scientific misconduct are positively correlated.
Academics face the pressure to either “publish or perish” in their research endeavors, leading to a publication culture that is not perceived positively. Some existing evidence suggests that the added psychological stress of publication pressure can result in diminished ethical decision making and engagement in scientific misconduct. This could include fabrication, falsification, or even plagiarism – sometimes termed sloppy science or questionable research practices.
Scientific misconduct can manifest as selective reporting, the intentional deletion of data points, selective citing, salami slicing (i.e., splitting the data of a single project into multiple publishable slices), guest authorships, and flawed quality assurance or mentoring.
“I decided to study this topic as I noticed the unethical behaviors of other researchers and wondered whether the so-called publication pressure is related to their behaviors,” explained study author Mariola Paruzel-Czachura, a moral psychologist at the University of Silesia. “Studying this topic is highly relevant to research integrity and more generally, for the quality of research. Moreover, past research suggests that this relationship is possible.”
In Study 1, 423 researchers from a large Polish University were recruited from varying disciplines, including the humanities, exact sciences, and social sciences. Participants responded to 13 questions relating to their perceived publication pressure and publication ethics. In Study 2, the study authors recruited 31 researchers who were part of university management. For these individuals, the survey questions were rephrased to reflect their observations of subordinates.
“Researchers have stressful jobs, and that stress may be related to their unethical behaviors,” Paruzel-Czachura told PsyPost. “It is not so bad, as most researchers are ethical, and they do not engage in highly unethical behaviors, such as inventing data. However, many researchers observe – among others – so-called questionable research practices. Such as, adding a colleague as a co-author to an article, without any contribution from them to the research.”
While only 3% of participants reported having engaged in scientific misconduct in the past, 51% reported noticing a colleague violating ethical standards. The greater participants’ perceived publication pressure was, the greater their intentions were to engage in dishonest scientific practices in the future. Satisfaction with the current system of accumulating points was not related to past scientific misconduct, or intentions to engage in future dishonest practices. Lastly, scholars who observed strong publication pressure in their colleagues were also more likely to notice the unethical scientific practices of others. These findings suggest that researchers today no longer face the dilemma to publish or perish, but instead, to publish or be ethical.
With regard to study limitations, Paruzel-Czachura noted, “First, the study was conducted in one country, so it is hard to generalize the results. Second, we used self-description surveys, so we cannot determine if the gathered data and statistics are accurate. However, we already know that people usually show their morality in a better light, so we may expect our statistics to be understated.”
“As well, these studies were conducted in Poland, where we have an average level of stress in research. Compared to the United States, we have more stable jobs here at the beginning of our careers, and we are not so stressed about publications like in countries where if you do not publish, you will lose your job in a few months. For example, we have more extended contracts. Other researchers also point out this problem – that we have different educational and research systems, and different levels of stress in research. Future studies should control this issue.”
These findings provide the groundwork for future research questions.
“We still need to prevent questionable research practices and learn how individual differences among researchers may be related to unethical behavior. I also think that culture may play a role here. For example, in our study, we found that honorary co-authorship was Poland’s most popular ethical misconduct. I think this may be related to high levels of loyalty and authority in our culture, and future studies could examine how culture impacts scientific misconduct.”
The study, “Publish or be ethical? Publishing pressure and scientific misconduct in research”, was authored by Mariola Paruzel-Czachura, Lidia Baran and Zbigniew Spendel.