Fraud and Misrepresentation

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The intentional distortion of the truth, for whatever purpose, is contrary to most conceptions of morality, as well as to codes of practice and codes of ethics in the professions. To alter or distort the truth is also the antithesis of appropriate scientific conduct. Science is dependent upon certain principles, including integrity of character, honesty, and objectivity, in the pursuit of truth. Being in a position of trust places on the professional an additional expectation to tell the truth. Public health, as well as the health of individuals, is dependent on the ability to gather full and accurate information on any health-related topic. To minimize the likelihood of fraud, ethics guidelines exist and health professionals are expected to abide by them. Ethical conduct is ensured by peer oversight and is perpetuated through role models. In teaching settings, supervisors serve as ethical mentors in the apprenticeship of aspiring professionals.

In spite of this value system and need for the truth, fraud and misrepresentation are not un-common in science and public health. Instances of fraud range from plagiarism and the fabrication and falsification of scientific data to practicing medicine without a license. In public health, where much harm could result from such practices, penalties exist as disincentives. Penalties for scientific misconduct include being barred from the scientific community, expulsion from professional organizations, and the suspension or loss of a license to practice. Minimally, a period of exclusion from professional activity would be ordered if some degree of rehabilitation could be expected. However, in practice, people have deceived not only their peers, but also the public. The promotion of tobacco products provides one example of a deception that has resulted in untold public harm over many decades. Indeed, at the end of the twentieth century after some fifty years of avoidance, the tobacco industry was being called to task for its deceptive actions. Substantial financial penalties have been ordered by the courts.

Colin L. Soskolne

(see also: Accountability; Codes of Conduct and Ethics Guidelines )


Soskolne, C. L., and MacFarlane, D. K. (1996). "Scientific Misconduct in Epidemiologic Research." In Ethics and Epidemiology, eds. S. S. Coughlin and T. L. Beauchamp. New York: Oxford University Press.