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Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2020

Page updated 29 April, 2020

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2020, Researching the Real World, available at
All rights belong to author.


A Guide to Methodology

10. Ethics

10.1 Introduction
10.2 Harm
10.3 Confidentiality, anonymity and privacy
10.4 Approval
10.5 Informed consent

10.6 Deception
10.7 Fraud
10.8 Publishing ethics
10.9 Conclusion

10.7 Fraud
Another form of deception occurs when the author does not deceive the research subjects but deceives the research readership (and journal editors) by attempting to publish research that has been fabricated in some way, or has not even been conducted in the first place.

For example, Caroline Barwood was charged with fraud and attempted fraud after an investigation by Queensland's Crime and Corruption Commission into allegations she had obtained research grants dishonestly. The matter was referred to the Crime and Corruption Commission by the university after several papers co-authored by Barwood were retracted when no evidence could be found that the study had ever been conducted. She was subsequently found guilty by a Brisbane District Court jury of falsifying Parkinson's disease research to obtain hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding (Brisbane Times, 2016).

A rather more complex fraud misconduct case involved a journal that received an article that undertook a meta-analysis of several primary research papers (COPE, 2014). The referee for the paper, and an expert in the field, doubted the veracity of some of the studies that were included in the meta-analysis. The assumption was not that the author of the meta-analysis had inserted some fake papers but that the original papers that had been selected were indeed fake (or heavily plagiarised). The problem then, was that the author of the meta-analysis was faced with rejection or at least a long delay while the veracity of the primary research papers was explored.

Fraud has many layers and is not always easy to spot; and even when uncovered may avoid sanction, being described as questionable scholarship. William Becker and Suzanne Becker (2011) wrote:

For still more questionable scholarship consider the case of an Australian higher education student-satisfaction guru [Actually a British teaching and learning 'guru' who worked in Australia for a while] who asserted that his research showed what encourages university students to leam effectively based on a bivariate comparison of student reported outcomes and teaching techniques. [fn7 not quoted here] The author provided a scatter plot that
he claimed showed a positive relationship between a y-axis index for his "deep approach" (aimed at student understanding versus "surface leaming") and an x-axis index of "good teaching" (including feedback of assessed work, clear goals, etc.). [fn8 See Ramsden (1998, pp. 352–355).]
When I contacted the author to get a copy of his data and his coauthored "Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Australian Association for Research in Education, Brisbane (December 1997)," which was listed as the source for his regression of the deep approach index on the good teaching index, he replied that the conference paper had never been written and that due to a lack of research assistance, it would take some time to retrieve the data and referred me to his coauthor. [fn9 not quoted here]
Aside from the murky issue of citing a paper which this author subsequently admitted does not exist, and his not providing the data on which his published 1998 paper is allegedly based, in Becker (2004) I demonstrated a potential problem in bivariate comparisons aggregated at the university level. [fn10 not quoted here] Subsequent to our correspondence, the author became embroiled in a controversy conceming the suspension of a research director who publicly criticized the Higher Education Academy's National Student Survey [which Ramsden supported] as a "hopelessly inadequate improvement tool." (Gill 2008).

A rather simpler and notrious case was that of Dutch psychologist Diederik Stapel who admitted to faking data and making up entire experiments that were published in a substantial number of articles. He published research indicating that eating meat made people selfish and less social, a study supposedly showing that  advertisements for perfume, mascara and other beauty-enhancing products make women feel inadequate and a study in Science, that gained a lot of media attention, about an experiment done at the Utrecht train station showing that a messy rubbish-filled environment accentuated racist tendencies in individuals.

Following accusations of his having faked data, Stapel revisited the train station in Utrecht where he supposedly conducted the experiment but could not find a location that matched the conditions described in his experiment. At which point he confessed to his wife and subsequently to the University of Tilburg, from which he was suspended and ultimately dismissed.

Yudhijit Bhattacharjee (2013) reported a conversation with Stapel:

Stapel did not deny that his deceit was driven by ambition. But it was more complicated than that, he told me. He insisted that he loved social psychology but had been frustrated by the messiness of experimental data, which rarely led to clear conclusions. His lifelong obsession with elegance and order, he said, led him to concoct sexy results that journals found attractive. "It was a quest for aesthetics, for beauty — instead of the truth," he said. He described his behavior as an addiction that drove him to carry out acts of increasingly daring fraud, like a junkie seeking a bigger and better high….. Several times in our conversation, Stapel alluded to having a fuzzy, postmodernist relationship with the truth, which he agreed served as a convenient fog for his wrongdoings….
In his early years of research — when he supposedly collected real experimental data — Stapel wrote papers laying out complicated and messy relationships between multiple variables. He soon realized that journal editors preferred simplicity. "They are actually telling you: 'Leave out this stuff. Make it simpler,' " Stapel told me. Before long, he was striving to write elegant articles….
Stapel reflected on why his behavior had sparked such outrage in the Netherlands. "People think of scientists as monks in a monastery looking out for the truth," he said. "People have lost faith in the church, but they haven't lost faith in science. My behavior shows that science is not holy." 
What the public didn't realize, he said, was that academic science, too, was becoming a business. "There are scarce resources, you need grants, you need money, there is competition," he said. "Normal people go to the edge to get that money. Science is of course about discovery, about digging to discover the truth. But it is also communication, persuasion, marketing. I am a salesman. I am on the road. People are on the road with their talk. With the same talk. It's like a circus." He named two psychologists he admired — John Cacioppo and Daniel Gilbert — neither of whom has been accused of fraud. "They give a talk in Berlin, two days later they give the same talk in Amsterdam, then they go to London. They are traveling salesmen selling their story."

Ferric Fang, editor of Infection and Immunity, agreed that there was an increasing hard sell to attract research grants:

This makes people desperate to sell their research as strongly as possible. I think people are tempted to cut corners to exaggerate the importance of their work…Everything is reported as a major advance. If that were the case, we should be on Mars and have cured cancer by now. (Bavley, 2012)

Bhattacharjee (2013) remarked that scientific fraud is not a new phenomenon:

The once-celebrated South Korean stem-cell researcher Hwang Woo Suk stunned scientists in his field a few years ago after it was discovered that almost all of the work for which he was known was fraudulent. The prominent Harvard evolutionary biologist Marc Hauser resigned in 2011 during an investigation by the Office of Research Integrity at the Department of Health and Human Services that would end up determining that some of his papers contained fabricated data. 
Every year, the Office of Research Integrity uncovers numerous instances­ of bad behavior by scientists… And considered from a more cynical point of view, figures like Hwang and Hauser are not outliers so much as one end on a continuum of dishonest behaviors that extend from the cherry-picking of data to fit a chosen hypothesis — which many researchers admit is commonplace — to outright fabrication. Still, the nature and scale of Stapel's fraud sets him apart from most other cheating academics. "The extent to which I did it, the longevity of it, makes it extreme," he told me. "Because it is not one paper or 10 but many more."

Indeed, there have been many scientific frauds. Piltdown Man is one of the more famous: a human skull combined with an orangutan's jaw and the teeth of a chimp  confounded evolutionary biologists for 50 years. However, scientists replicate research and earlier results that are confirmed become more entrenched in the discipline and those that seem flimsy are sidelined.

However, identifying and establishing fraudulent activity is complex and researchers can have their careers blighted by false accusations. Two researchers in different jurisdictions, United States of America and Italy, were each accused of fraud, in particular manipulating images using photoshop. The mass media jump readily onto such accusations, albeit are less inclined to highlight acquittals. Nicholas Wade (2012), of the New York Times, for example wrote desparingly:

A charge of widespread scientific fraud, involving 26 articles published in 11 journals, was leveled [sic] by the University of Connecticut today against Dipak K. Das, one of its researchers, whose work reported health benefits in red wine.
Many of the articles reported positive effects from resveratrol, an ingredient of red wine thought to promote longevity in laboratory animals.….
Researchers complain that federal grants are increasingly hard to get, even for high-quality research, yet money seemed to have flowed freely to Dr. Das, who was generating research of low visibility and apparently low quality. The University of Connecticut said Wednesday that it was returning two new grants to Dr. Das, worth a total of $890,000, to the federal government….
The investigation of Dr. Das's work began in January 2009, two weeks after the university received an anonymous allegation about research irregularities in his laboratory. A special review board headed by Dr. Kent Morest of the University of Connecticut has now produced a 60,000-page report, which has been forwarded to the Office of Research Integrity, a federal agency that investigates fraud by researchers who receive government grants.
According to a 60-page summary of the report, Dr. Das's published research articles were found to contain 145 instances of fabrication and falsification of data. Many involved cutting and pasting photographic images from a type of research record known as a western blot. Because western blots have often been subject to manipulations in the past, many journals require that the images not be altered in any way without an explicit description of the procedure.

A year later Resveratrol News published Dipak Das's obituary that seemed to be a sole voice setting the record straight:

Dr. Das vindicated over allegations of scientific fraud
Just freshly retired, charges of scientific fraud were lodged by his university. Western blot tests, a measure of proteins made by genes, were said to be fabricated. Dr. Das was pilloried in the court of public opinion. Hundreds of news agencies declared his guilt before he had even stood trial. At trial, Dr. Das was never given an opportunity to defend himself.
His university withdraw a website that made many unsubstantiated allegations against him. Kindred resveratrol researchers noted that Dr. Das' published papers had been validated by many other independent researchers. The tell-tale experiment that would either validate or nullify Dr. Das' discoveries was conducted by National Institute of Health (NIH) researchers. Dr. Das had reported on gene activity in resveratrol treated hearts as graphically displayed by western blot images (alleged to be altered). NIH investigators, using the same tissue samples from animal hearts that Dr. Das used, performed a more sophisticated microRNA analysis. MicroRNA results paralleled the Western Blot testing performed in Dr. Das' laboratory. But the charges were never dropped and Dr. Das faced expulsion from his university position.
In the wake of this decision, many of his research papers were retracted. Dr. Das later filed a $35 million defamation case against his university. That case is still pending. Offers to fund the case against the university have been received to clear his name of unjust charges.
It is clear that millions of lives have been lost with failure to put into practice many of the discoveries made by Dipak K. Das. Ranging from mistaken use of anti-inflammatory drugs, failure to employ antioxidants when restoring circulation to the heart following a heart attack, to failed survival of instilled stem cells because they were not accompanied by antioxidant pre-treatment, modern medicine now attempts to erase much of this noble researcher's science, falsely claiming it was fabricated. Few if any cardiologists prescribe resveratrol pills even though "cardiac preconditioning" is the most advantageous approach to saving lives.
Dr. Dipak Kumar Das, 67, died at his home in West Hartford, Connecticut on Sept. 19, 2013. (Sardi, 2013)

Similarly, a gastroenterologist and assistant professor Stefano Fiorucci of the University of Perugia was indicted for fraud and embezzlement for manipulating images using Photoshop. Again, the media widely reported the accusations, which turned out to be baseless. Retraction Watch (2016) outlined the accusations:

An earlier institutional investigation into Stefano Fiorucci, based at the University of Perugia in Italy, found that he had manipulated images in publications that he allegedly used to win two million Euros of funding. The story, which has dragged on for years, has resulted in four retractions and nine expressions of concern for publications authored by Fiorucci.   

Retraction Watch went on to explain the the Criminal Court of Perugia declared that every accusation against Prof. Fiorucci was false. The ruling (translated) reads: '…the Court DISCHARGES Stefano Fiorucci from the crimes, he stands accused of in the report, because there is no case to answer'. The court also ordered that any property seized from Fiorucci must be returned. Fiorucci made no comment but his lawyer, Stefano Bagianti, said 'we'll do every legal action to restore the damage suffered by my Client'.

However, not all fraud is perpetrated by the researchers. Sometimes the researchers are subject to fraudulent conferences and publishers when trying to disseminate their work. One such conference and publishing outfit was exposed by a graduate student who submitted fake non-sensical 'scientific' papers and had them accepted (on payment of a fee) even though the organisers clearly claimed that acceptance of the papers was based on an expert review process.

Navin Kabra, a PhD graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay and the University of Wisconsin submitted two entirely spurious nonsense papers to a conference organised by the 'Institute of Research and Journals' entitled the International Conference on Recent Innovations in Engineering, Science &Technology (ICRIEST), which was held in Pune on 29 December 2013.

However, as Niranjan Medhekar (2013) reported, both Kabra's papers were auto-generated using freely-available online software. In fact, one paper has references to the Hindi movie, Sholay, and an entire section contains dialogues from a hit Hollywood film, My Cousin Vinny. An excerpt from the paper is as follows:

It is a self-evident truth that Sholay is the best movie ever made (at least according to the wife of the author of this paper). Now, if you're paying attention, the first author of the paper appears to be Riaa Seth, which would indicate that she cannot have a wife, because the Supreme Court of India just upheld Section 377. But, samajhne ki baat yeh hai ki, Riaa Seth is not really the author of this paper – instead it is Navin Kabra, whose wife is Meeta Kabra, the owner of Please visit for great movie reviews, which don't give the movie away. She is currently reviewing Dhoom 3, and we predict that she will give it a rating of "Even the keen, wait for DVD". But our AAF algorithm indicates that it will be a box-office hit. (Medhekar, 2013)

Kabra paid Rs 3,000 (after a 50 per cent discount following haggling over email) for getting one of the papers published. The other paper was accepted by the conference but not published as he did not pay the publishing fees. That paper even has a nonsensical name but it completely escaped the supposed international jury.

The other paper, with the gibberish title of 'Use of Cloud-Computing and Social Media to Determine Box Office Performance', accepted for the conference but not published concluded:

In this position paper we described UIB, a method to use the browser to check to lookup box office performance of movies, and AAF, a method to ask friends on Facebook about how a movie is doing, and a hybrid algorithm AAFtUIB in which we ask a friend to use And we've managed to reference Hilbert, HHGTTG, Sholay, My Cousin Vinny, Jeff Naughton, the Wisconsin Database Performance Paper, Xeno's paradox, Meeta Kabra and the website, and we even referenced the Sokal Affair in the heading of the paper (actually in the name of the institute that the authors are from, but you get what I mean, right?) proving once and for all that nobody has read this paper. (Medhekar, 2013)

At the conference, the organisers claimed that all the papers were reviewed by panelists from a panel of international experts using a double-blind review methodology, involving at least three reviewers, and only high-quality papers were accepted (which included Kabra's nonsense). Kabra said his own experience suggested no such thing happened because they would have rejected both papers after reading just two paragraphs.

When confronted with these revelations, Ajit Dash, associate editor, IRAJ, said he is not aware of any fake paper. "He (Kabra) might have sent it for another journal," Dash told MiD DAY. "You send me an official mail with his name and research topic, I will personally look in to it." He said IRAJ charges those fees "because of overhead expenses. All our efforts are to help engineering students."
However, despite this being the second such IRAJ and ICRIEST conference in a month in Pune, the University is not even aware of it. "I don't know of any research organisation named IRAJ. I am sorry, I am just not aware about any such conference happening in the city," said Dr Gajanan Kharate, dean of engineering in the University of Pune. (Medhekar, 2013

This phoney conference and journal publishing is known as predatory publishing (or sometimnes deceptive publishing or write-only publishing). It exploits vulnerable academics (often inexperienced or from countries with less well established journals) desperate to publish, as a result of pressure to succeed in or even retain their academic job. The academics pay and the resultant 'publication' is next to worthless. There have been attempts to provide lists of such predatory publishers but legal battles and a rapidly changing scene makes it difficult to track.


Next 10.8 Publishing ethics