Cheating in academia?

It’s been all over the media in the past weeks – Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Lance Armstrong, in which he admitted having used EPO, blood transfusions, and hormones. Having been a semi-professional mountain biker for years, I have been following the accusations that preceded the interview, the buildup to the interview, and the (media) response after the interview. One thing I found particularly interesting is that Lance Armstrong didn’t feel he was cheating, because (at the time?) everyone was using doping.

After having read a recent blog post on Retraction Watch, I couldn’t help starting to compare cheating in sports with cheating in academia. There are quite a few parallels – for example, Tyler Hamilton, a convicted doping user, has written a book about his years in Lance Armstrong’s team, giving insight in the systematic drug use in the peloton. One of the most notorious committers of scientific misconduct, Diederik Stapel, has written a book about his fraud, and I am sure others will follow his example. After all, once your career is over because of cheating, writing a book about it is a good way to make money as well as coming clean, which must be a massive relief after having lived a lie for many years.

The post on Retraction Watch tries to answer the question whether men are more likely to commit scientific fraud than women. The most famous scientific frauds are men, and a greater proportion of men than women commit fraud in the life sciences. This can be explained in two ways – either men are more prone to engage in risky behaviour, are more competitive, and are more aggressive, or, women are better in disguising scientific misconduct.

This made me wonder what the male/female ratio is in doping users in sports. The comprehensive list of doping cases in sport on Wikipedia leaves no doubt – the majority of these are male, although there are of course some very famous female doping users – Florence Griffith has never been caught, but is widely considered to have set the world records on the 100 and 200m with the help of drugs. Also, female doping use was widespread in Eastern Germany, although often this was forced, or unknown to the athletes. Men also dominate the list of doping cases in cycling. Of course, this gender imbalance might be due to typical male behaviour, but it might also simply be a result that there is far more money to make in male professional sport.

Finally, in addition to fraud (fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism), there is also the actual use of performance-enhancing substances in academia. It is not really known how wide spread this is, although a Nature poll suggested that one in five readers had used them – a claim that is questioned by Fullfact, but still, the use of performance enhancing substances seems pretty wide spread. More information might be available soon, as the polling group Ipsos MORI is currently conducting its own survey on the use of cognitive-enhancing drugs on behalf of the Welcome Trust.

So, are the stakes higher for men in science too? I certainly have never committed fraud, and don’t intend to do so – well, of course I’ve removed the occasional outlier here and there, but these have always been justifiable. I don’t think I could live with myself after having made up results. I actually think that the movement towards open data, and open access, is actually a very important step in preventing data fabrication and falsification – who would ever dare to do this, if anyone can check and use your data? Open data is the scientific equivalent of the blood passport in professional cycling!

I have also never used performance-enhancing drugs, although, according to some, you could categorize espresso as one – and I certainly drink many of those! I have to say that it sounds quite tempting to use something stimulating, or something that makes me, for example, need less sleep. Academia is very competitive, and I sometimes feel that my minimum amount of eight hours sleep hampers my productivity. How nice would it be to be able to do with less sleep! Maybe here the stakes are higher for women than for men, as women (in general) need more sleep than men. Or maybe it is just healthy to value your sleep and not work crazy hours? I think I am just going to continue as I am now: long and productive working days, generally having the evening off, lots of sleep, and always some work during the weekend. In combination with a healthy diet, a social life, the occasional pint or glass of wine, or two, and lots of doping free exercise!

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