A Commentary in mBio today takes issue with a recent study of research misconduct among life scientists. Molly Carnes and her coauthors say the data may not be as straightforward as they appear at first blush, and that we shouldn't be too quick to condemn men for activities that hew close to gender stereotypes.
In their analysis published in January, Fang et al. say data from the Office of Research Integrity indicates male researchers funded by the Department of Health and Human Services commit research misconduct more often than their female peers, a gender disparity that is most pronounced among senior scientists.
In their Commentary, Kaatz et al. point out that a few key facts are missing that, if taken into account, could confound these results. For one thing, they say, men may have more opportunities to commit misconduct. Although men outnumber women among researchers in the life sciences, men are even more overrepresented in the pool of "potential perpetrators": men are more likely to hold more than one large R01 award, lead large center grants, and compete successfully in the renewal process. What's more, men's research awards are about $100,000 more than women's. So, women make up about 30% of faculty in the life sciences, but since they have less money to work with, and, presumably, fewer projects, they have fewer opportunities to commit misconduct and get caught by the ORI.
Kaatz et al. also point out that male representation among grad students and postdocs may not be as reliable as we think, and even a few percentage points difference can skew the data, making it appear that women commit misconduct more often than men.
We need to be careful not to jump to conclusions when faced with ambiguities like these, say Kaatz et al., since our deductions about men and women will probably adhere to long-held and pernicious stereotypes about how men and women behave. A quick acceptance of the idea that men are more easily corrupted could prevent a hard look at the data - data that indicate that although women have an increasing share of faculty spots, their piece of the funding pie isn't keeping pace.