Governed by a methodical process of repeated observation and experimentation and inspired by the lofty philosophical principles of rationalism and objectivity, it’s easy to think of science as an infallible and incorruptible tool with which to explore pure truths about the universe. But in fact, scientific research is and (until the robots take over) always will be a human endeavor. Long story short, it’s important to consider science results carefully because separating conclusions from the lingering effects of our biases and egos is difficult, and humans have a tendency to simply up and cheat when things don’t go as expected.
A new study in the Annals of Internal Medicine revealed that more than half of the biostatisticians surveyed had been asked by researchers to severely manipulate or falsify data in the past five years. These requests for “inappropriate analysis and reporting” covered a broad range of unethical number-fudging tactics, including removing or altering records to better support the research hypothesis, shifting secondary outcomes to sound like the primary outcome, and modifying measurement scales for some desired results.
Biostatisticians are specialized scientists who translate experimental datasets into comprehensible figures and calculate the degree to which the findings support the research team’s hypothesis. As such, many less-than-scrupulous researchers will try to enhance the apparent outcome of their studies by changing or cherry-picking data during the analysis process.
The authors – whose data analysis is hopefully trustworthy – were inspired to conduct their study after finding that only one other survey quantifying shady requests made to biostatisticians had been published, and that was back in 1998. For their own survey, authors Min Qi Wang, Alice Yan, and Ralph Katz sent online questionnaires to 800 randomly selected members of the American Statistical Association. Information from the 390 biostatisticians who completed the questionnaire was used in the analysis.