August 2010


Direct Yearly Cost of Scientific Misconduct in the United States May Exceed $100 Million USD

It's a sad fact that scientific misconduct not only exists, but is rather common. From refusing to share original research data as agreed prior to publication, to technical medical editors who are indifferent to plagiarism, misconduct is swirling all around the scientific enterprise.

Scientific misconduct extends into active fraud as well. According to one study, over 14% of biomedical and clinical scientists have witnessed fraud, although less than 2% admit to having committed it themselves.

Such behavior affects more than the scientists directly involved. Other scientists may waste a lot of time and effort on research programs based on fraudulent results (think of all the scientists who tried to reproduce and build upon the research of physicist Jan Hendrik Schön on carbon-based electronics), and public health may be harmed if medical advice is based on false premises.

Scientific misconduct surely also costs a lot of money, both directly (e.g. investigative costs) and indirectly (e.g. lost grant money). Estimating the cost of scientific misconduct will underscore the necessity of efforts aimed at stamping it out early before it happens.

Furthermore, scientific research costs tons of money in the first place. We should be figuring out how to use this money most effectively, and reducing fraud is a worthwhile approach.

Arthur Michalek (Roswell Park Cancer Institute, United States) and coworkers are among the first scientists to develop a scientific model of the cost of scientific research misconduct. They conservatively estimate that direct costs in the United States alone are in excess of $100 million USD each year.

The cost of scientific misconduct.

The scientists note that the total cost of scientific misconduct includes those which are either measurable, intangible, or random. To arrive at a conservative estimate, they focused their study on the measurable direct cost of a specific case of misconduct at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute (the identity of the accused scientist(s) was not revealed).

An allegation of scientific misconduct was reported. This cost no money.

Next, an admininstrative review was undertaken. This cost $1000 USD.

Next, a formal inquiry was undertaken, during which a grant and email correspondence was reviewed. This cost $13,000 USD.

Next, laboratory equipment, notebooks, etc were confiscated, and physical and electronic data was duplicated to enable other scientists in the research group to continue with their work. This cost $10,000 USD.

After all this, the final investigation was conducted. The salaries of all those involved, related to their time spent in the investigation, totaled $514,500 USD.

Adding this all up, the sum direct cost of this case of scientific misconduct was between $500,000 and $550,000 USD. This does not include indirect costs, likely far exceeding the direct costs, including lost grant money, which came out to over $1 million USD.

When this direct cost is extrapolated to the 217 cases of scientific misconduct registered with the United States Office of Research Integrity, the estimated yearly direct cost of scientific misconduct in the United States comes out to be over $100 million USD.


Let's put this lost money into perspective. Investigating scientific misconduct costs the equivalent of 400 5-year $250,000 USD NIH R01 grants (prestigious and highly sought-after) each and every year.

This does not include indirect costs. Nor does it include the waste of scientific misconduct that never comes to light.

Realize that this estimate is based on only one case study. However, it's a reasonable ballpark figure.

Scientific misconduct is not a "victimless crime." It is an issue which should be taken seriously by all scientists; money spent towards eliminating the scourge of scientific misconduct before it occurs is money well-spent.

NOTE: The research reported by Michalek and coworkers was not specifically covered by any funding agencies. for more information:
Michalek, A. M., Hutson, A. D., Wicher, C. P., & Trump, D. L. (2010). The Costs and Underappreciated Consequences of Research Misconduct: A Case Study PLoS Medicine, 7 (8) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1000318