The costs of investigating allegations of scientific misconduct in the United States could exceed $110 million annually, according to research published in PLoS Medicine (2010;7:e1000318), which puts the costs associated with a single investigation of scientific misconduct at as high as $525,000.
“Directors of research programs hardly need to be reminded of the short- and long-term damage that can follow an incident of scientific misconduct, but I think it's important that the research community have some numbers to attach to just how costly these missteps can be—regardless of whether the misconduct is willful,” lead study author Arthur M. Michalek, PhD, former dean and senior vice president for educational affairs at Roswell Park Cancer Institute (RPCI) who retired earlier this year, said in a news release.
In collaboration with Donald L. Trump, MD, President and CEO of RPCI; Camille Wicher, RN, MSN, Esq, Vice President of Corporate Ethics and Research Subject Protection; and Alan Hutson, PhD, Chair of the Department of Biostatistics, Dr. Michalek and his team created a statistical model to estimate the costs associated with scientific misconduct, dividing the expense into three areas:
- Conduct of the fraudulent research, which includes monetary investments such as startup funds and grants.
- Remediation—i.e., loss of research funding and reputation damages, etc.
The model was applied to one case study based on an actual investigation, breaking down the costs by stages of the investigational process. The results showed that once an allegation is seen as potentially credible, approximately $1,000 is needed to deliberate and gather information to support the decision; an inquiry panel to review the data costs an estimated $13,000; and an additional $10,000 is needed to cover the costs of sequestering lab equipment and information.
The bulk of the expenses, though, relate to the actual investigation: an investigation committee of eight individuals spending some 100 hours in meetings ($78,000), an estimated 700 hours of work for outside committee ($430,000), clerical support ($2,500), and 50-person hours for reviewing grants and manuscripts ($4,000).
The researchers determined that if the costs observed for this single investigation were applied to all 217 allegations of misconduct reported to the Office of Research Integrity in 2007 (the most recent reporting period), the direct costs would exceed $110 million.
While scientific misconduct may never be eliminated, cases of misconduct related to a lack of scientific standards likely can be prevented, the authors wrote, noting that it has not yet been determined how that may be achieved. Additionally, many academic institutions have implemented steps to reduce incidences of misconduct, such as enforcing scientific codes of conduct, providing mentorship training, monitoring and auditing research activities, and implementing procedures for reporting and investigating alleged incidents of misconduct, Dr. Michalek and coauthors said.
“The ultimate effectiveness of these approaches may take time to discern. What is known, however, is that the costs of these proactive activities pale in comparison with the costs of a single case of scientific misconduct.”