Science and Engineering Ethics

Justin T. Pickett* and Sean Patrick Roche



Data fraud and selective reporting both present serious threats to the credibility of science. However, there remains considerable disagreement among scientists about how best to sanction data fraud, and about the ethicality of selective reporting. The public is arguably the largest stakeholder in the reproducibility of science; research is primarily paid for with public funds, and flawed science threatens the public’s welfare. Members of the public are able to make meaningful judgments about the morality of different behaviors using moral intuitions. Legal scholars emphasize that to maintain legitimacy, social control policies must be developed with some consideration given to the public’s moral intuitions. Although there is a large literature on popular attitudes toward science, there is no existing evidence about public opinion on data fraud or selective reporting. We conducted two studies—a survey experiment with a nationwide convenience sample (N = 821), and a follow-up survey with a representative sample of US adults (N = 964)—to explore community members’ judgments about the morality of data fraud and selective reporting in science. The findings show that community members make a moral distinction between data fraud and selective reporting, but overwhelmingly judge both behaviors to be immoral and deserving of punishment. Community members believe that scientists who commit data fraud or selective reporting should be fired and banned from receiving funding. For data fraud, most Americans support criminal penalties. Results from an ordered logistic regression analysis reveal few demographic and no significant partisan differences in punitiveness toward data fraud.

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* Denotes CSDA Associates, Affiliates, and Staff