There has been a lot of reporting of allegations of misconduct by U.S. researchers. The Department of Health and Human Services received 274 complaints — 50 percent higher than 2003 and the most since 1989 when the federal government established a program to deal with scientific misconduct. The federal Office of Research Integrity closed only 23 cases last year and, of those, eight individuals were found guilty of research misconduct. In the past 15 years, the office has confirmed about 185 cases of scientific misconduct.

More disturbing, however, a survey published June 9 in the journal Nature shows about 1.5 percent of 3,247 researchers who responded admitted to falsification or plagiarism. (One in three admitted to some type of professional misbehavior.) This doesn’t seem to be new — in 1974, Dr. William Summerlin, a researcher at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute, used a marker to make black patches of fur on white mice in an attempt to prove his new skin graft technique was working. It’s just hard to tell, though, how much bad acts are increasing or just increasingly being found/reported.

Not to let anyone off the hook but there is a tremendous amount of professional pressure to publish papers and do more work in the academic setting than ever before. One researcher testified that he was working 80 to 90 hours a week, seeing patients two days a week, doing surgery one day a week, supervising medical residents, serving on as many as 10 different committees at the hospital and the medical school and putting on national medical conferences. He sought help from a psychiatrist who counseled him to cut back and from his boss who demanded he increase his research and refused to reduce his patient load (Gee, I think I know him).

While there are often many reasons cited, e.g., mental disorders and the like, it still all comes down to character. But not just the character of the researchers involved in the studies. What we have is a system that grinds people into the ground and then recoils as (horrors! gasp!) someone cracks under the strain.

Everyone is so quick to damn the individual researcher (and we should) but no one seems to be willing to indict their co-conspirators. The university administration that sets up a publish or perish environment; the requirement for more and more grants to support more and more (slave) students; the demanding federal grant application process. And even the whistleblowers tend to be punished instead of “upper management” — who get to turn a blind eye to the consequences of the system, all the while reaping the benefits of increased output.

Noteworthy is that the National Institutes of Health is currently being asked to explain why one of the agency’s scientists was fired after he complained about poor scientific practices within his division and inappropriate unprofessional conduct from his supervisor.

But, this practice is certainly not constrained to the research filed. With billable hour requirements exceeding 2000 hours (and many associates required to bill as many as 2400 hours annually in order to achieve the highest compensation levels) there can be a culture of “work or die” in a law firm just as intense as anywhere. The problem, of course, is that there are only so many billable hours in a day and increased pressure on associates (or any attorney, doctor, or other professional) to bill hours may, in turn, increase the temptation to engage in unethical billing practices, such as inflating the hours actually spent on tasks, euphemistically referred to as “padding.”

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist once observed, “if one is expected to bill more than two thousand hours per year, there are bound to be temptations to exaggerate the hours actually put in.” The Legal Profession Today, 62 IND. L.J. 151, 155 (1987). Yet about a quarter of all partners and half of all associates are now billing more than 2000 hours per year.

This is not just a misconduct question here. This relates to quality of life for professionals as well as their communities. Do we want professionals to be well-rounded individuals capable of contributing to society at all levels or do we want billing machines? I guess we could all be like as one partner in one of Chicago’s largest and most prestigious firms who recorded an average of 5941 billable hours per year for four consecutive years. Karen Dillon, 6,022 Hours, Am. Law., July/Aug. 1994, at 57. If we assume that 70% of work time is converted into billable hours, this lawyer needed to work 23.3 hours per day, 365 days a year.

Unfortunately, everyone is being asked to do more and more but no one asks where “more” comes from. When I was growing up, my father worked all the time (including his one week of “vacation”). He was lauded as a hero for working hard. Now, we’re supposed to work even harder at work while also working more at home and elsewhere. More time at ballgames, dance lessons, school programs, and everything else we’re told we need to do to be good citizens. There is such a thing as too much.

Let’s hope that we hold the rule makers as accountable as the rule breakers.

More here.

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  1. Blawg Review #15

    In “Misconduct (and Not Just Scientific) is a Problem for Everyone,” Stephen ties together stats on reported allegations of scientific misconduct, overwork in science and medicine, and overwork in the legal profession.