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Sex, Lies, Economists

August 7, 2014

A small proportion of European economists have confessed to “acceptance or offering of sex” in exchange for co-authorship or promotion, as well as owning up to fabricating or manipulating data.

A survey of about 400 economists, conducted among members of the European Economic Association on an anonymous basis, is analyzed in the article "Scientific Misbehavior in Economics,” currently in press for the journal Research Policy.

Ninety-four percent of respondents reported having engaged in at least one “unaccepted research practice,” the paper says.

The author of the research, Sarah Necker, a research assistant at the Walter Eucken Institute, in Germany, said that the findings are likely to underestimate the true scale of scientific misbehavior in the field.

Her paper states: “The correction, fabrication, or partial exclusion of data, incorrect co-authorship, or copying of others’ work is admitted by 1 to 3.5 percent.” And it adds: “Having accepted or offered gifts in exchange for (co-)authorship, access to data, or promotion is admitted by 3 percent. Acceptance or offering of sex or money is reported by 1 to 2 percent.”

Necker sent an online survey to the 2,500 members of the European Economic Association asking about the justifiability of certain research behaviors, their own practices and those of their colleagues, as well as perceptions of any pressure to publish. The analysis is based on responses from 426 people who completed the questionnaire in full.

Necker writes: “About one-fifth admits to having refrained from citing others’ work that contradicted their own analysis or to having maximized the number of publications by slicing their work into the smallest publishable unit.”

Almost a quarter of respondents said that they had copied their earlier work without citing it, and 7 percent admitted to using tricks to boost the outcome of statistical tests.

“The prevalence of misbehavior is likely to be biased – probably downward,” Necker says.

When asked about the behavior of colleagues, about a third admitted to seeing at least one case of scientific misconduct, but only a quarter reported it. In about half these cases the culprit was a professor.

The economists gave various reasons for not reporting the suspected misconduct, including uncertainty about whom to report it to, fear of the consequences for themselves and loyalty toward the offender.

Necker also looked at whether any perceived pressure to secure external funding or publish may have affected scientific behavior.

“The results indicate that the perception of pressure is positively related to the admission of several research practices rejected by a majority of economists,” she says.

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