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Young academics are more afraid of reporting misconduct

A group of scientific integrity experts from the Netherlands and Norway interviewed 1,100 researchers from eight European universities and found that the youngest are the least likely to report cases of misconduct. Those aged 21 to 39 said they reported only a third of the ethical conflicts they witnessed. Academics over the age of 40, however, reported half of the cases, while those aged 50 to 59 reported 65%.

The study was published in the journal Science and Engineering Ethics. “Reporting these cases, having institutions investigate them, and issuing sanctions where necessary are important to define norms in science,” said Serge Horbach, one of the study’s authors and a researcher at Radboud University, who also works at the Centre for Science and Technology Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands. “By not talking about these cases openly, we hinder that process,” he told the magazine Chemistry World. According to Horbach, younger researchers feel more concerned about the repercussions of speaking out and believe they have more to lose, and many said they are unaware of the proper procedures for making complaints. Some justified staying quiet by claiming their superiors have little impetus to take corrective actions.

Willingness to report was higher among academics with stable jobs (59% of the total) than among those in temporary positions (31%). With respect to gender, 51% of men reported misconduct when they witnessed it, compared to 45% of women. The research also showed that scientists are more likely to report clear-cut cases of misconduct, such as plagiarism and data falsification, for example. But more nuanced forms of misconduct, such as disputes over authorship or cherry picking of data, are less reported.

The study recommends improving scientific integrity training for young researchers and encouraging them to report cases of misconduct. “This may specifically strengthen one of science’s most important social control mechanisms in which direct colleagues check each other’s work,” the authors said.

Daniele Fanelli, who studies scientific misconduct at the London School of Economics in the United Kingdom, notes that encouraging reporting can have an unwanted side effect. According to him, many reports of ethical violations are motivated by personal and professional rivalries between researchers. “Policies need to strike an optimal balance between ensuring the protection of whistleblowers and requiring adequate evidential standards for allegations, in order to ensure that allegations are made with integrity, not frivolously or maliciously.”