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Dealing with “normal” misbehavior in science: Is gossip enough?

Posted by Admin in Research Integrity on September 20, 2017 / 0 Comments / Keywords: , , , ,

As scientists, whether in the natural or social sciences, we tend to be confident in the self-policing abilities of our disciplines to root out unethical behavior. In many countries, we have institutionalized procedures for dealing with egregious forms of misconduct in the forms of fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism (FFP).

But research is increasingly calling attention to more “everyday” forms of misconduct—modes of irresponsible (if not unethical) behavior, pertaining to how we conduct our research as well as our relationships with colleagues. These include, for example:

  • cutting corners and being sloppy in one’s research (which makes future replication difficult)
  • delaying reviews of a colleague’s work in order to beat them to publication
  • exploiting students
  • unfairly claiming authorship credit
  • misusing research funds
  • sabotaging colleagues, and so on.

Such behaviors don’t violate FFP, but nevertheless fall short of the professional standards we aspire to. They begin to shape the implicit norms we internalize about what it takes to become successful in our fields (i.e., the formal script may be that we are to give others their due credit, but “really” we know that winners need to play dirty). Further, such actions can foster experiences of injustice and exploitation that lead some of us to leave our professions altogether. They thus compromise the integrity of scientific research and can create the climate for more serious violations to occur.

Just because such forms of what DeVries, Anderson, and Martinson call “normal misbehavior” can’t be formally sanctioned, it doesn’t mean they go unnoticed. Rather, in the research that my colleagues and I conducted on scientists in several countries, we found such accounts to be commonplace. Why, then, the confidence in the self-policing abilities of our disciplines? The answer, we were surprised to find, was gossip.

Scientists regularly circulate information in their departments and subfields about those who violate scientific norms. Through such gossip, they try to warn one another about colleagues whose work one ought not to trust, as well as those with whom one should avoid working. The hope here is that the bad reputation generated by such gossip will negatively impact perpetrators and serve as a deterrent to others.

What we found, however, was that the same respondents would admit that many scientists in their fields managed to be quite successful in spite of a negative reputation. Some talked about stars in their disciplines who managed to regularly publish in top journals precisely because they cut corners, or managed to be highly prolific because they exploited students. Others feared that influential perpetrators could retaliate against challengers. Some others complained of “mafias” in their disciplines that controlled access to prestigious journals and grants. Still others didn’t want to develop a reputation as a troublemaker for challenging their colleagues.

Perhaps the strangest case we encountered was of a scientist at a highly reputed institution in India who was notorious for beating students with shoes if they made mistakes in the lab. Former students would try to warn incoming students through posters around campus, but this did little to hinder the flow of new students into the lab.

Our findings overall suggest that such gossip works as an effective deterrent only when targets of gossip are of lower status than perpetrators. For instance, gossip among senior scholars about the irresponsible behavior of a postdoc or junior faculty member can inhibit their hiring and promotion. However, the veracity of such gossip is hard to verify, and false rumors can destroy someone’s career. In one case we encountered, a scientist saw a colleague spread false gossip about a potential hire, but was unable to intervene in a timely manner to correct this rumor. Transgressors may also remain unaware of gossip, and thus may not be able to correct their behaviors. In cases where targets are of higher status, gossip seems little more than a means of venting frustration, with little effect on perpetrators. Overall, as a means of social control in the discipline, gossip is rather ineffective.

So why does all this matter?

The very prevalence of such gossip indicates that scientific communities still need to take more steps to improve the integrity of their organizations and fields, beyond simply sanctions for FFP. The content of such gossip should be important to leaders of scientific institutions because it can provide important access to rampant forms of irresponsible behavior that erode the integrity of scientific institutions. Obviously, such gossip can’t simply be taken at face value; investigation is needed to weed out false rumors. Institutions need to develop better channels to report questionable behavior and need to regularly analyze such reports for patterns that warrant attention.

What’s most crucial is that institutional leaders prioritize creating a climate that fosters prevention and transparency, encourages speaking up about such issues, and provides safety from potential retaliation. These are among the best practices for protecting whistleblowers, as identified by the Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee (WPAC) of the US Department of Labor. In addition to ethics training on issues related to FFP, the ongoing professionalization of scientists needs to include more overt discussion about

  • the implicit norms of success in the field
  • the prevalence and causes of burnout
  • how to productively address some of the more rampant forms of irresponsible behavior (such as the ones I listed earlier in this post), and
  • systemic issues, such as competitive pressures and structural incentives that enable the rationalization of irresponsible behavior

If such measures are implemented, we can significantly improve the ethical climates of our institutions and disciplines; reduce some of the attrition caused by institutional climates that tolerate (and even reward) such “normal misbehavior”; and help prevent the more egregious scandals that shake the public’s trust in science.


Martinson, B. C., Anderson, M. S., & De Vries, R. (2005). Scientists behaving badly.  Nature, 435(7043), 737-738.

Shinbrot, T. (1999). Exploitation of junior scientists must end. Nature, 399(6736), 521.

De Vries, R., Anderson, M. S., & Martinson, B. C. (2006). Normal misbehavior: Scientists talk about the ethics of research. Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics, 1(1), 43-50.

Vaidyanathan, B., Khalsa, S., & Ecklund, E. H. (2016). Gossip as Social Control: Informal Sanctions on Ethical Violations in Scientific Workplaces. Social Problems, 63(4), 554-572.

Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee (WPAC). (2015). Best Practices for Protecting Whistleblowers and Preventing and Addressing Retaliation.

Dr. Brandon Vaidyanathan is Associate Professor of Sociology | The Catholic University of America | CUA Staff

This post may be cited as:
Vaidyanathan B. (2017, 2o September 2017) Dealing with “normal” misbehavior in science: Is gossip enough? Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from:

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