The Fraud Examiner

The Common Male Fraudster: Spotting Demographic Trends
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April 2013

By Laura Hymes, CFE


A recent report in the academic journal mBio concluded that fraud in the scientific community is significantly more likely to be perpetrated by men than women. The article, “Males Are Overrepresented among Life Science Researchers Committing Scientific Misconduct,” was written by Ferric C. Fang, Joan W. Bennett and Arturo Casadevall, and published earlier this year. Their conclusion regarding the prevalence of male fraudsters might seem obvious considering that there are more men than women in scientific fields; however, even accounting for this gender disparity in the industry, men in lab coats committed substantially more fraud than their female counterparts.


The study analyzed 228 cases of misconduct reported to the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI), an organization devoted to responsible and honest academic research. According to the cases, the fraudulent practices comprised — among other things — plagiarism and the fabrication of data, and the dishonest individuals included students and professors. By examining common traits of these fraudsters, the analysts sought to understand who is more likely to undertake deception and how to encourage academic honesty. Motivations for scientific fraud include very tough competition to receive research funding, jobs and awards.


Fang, Bennett, and Casadevall found that fraud occurred in all stages of career advancement, from trainees to lab technicians, all the way up to tenured faculty. They had anticipated finding that trainees (i.e., students and post-doctoral fellows) perpetrated the majority of fraud, and they noted that it was unexpected to find only 40 percent of the incidents attributed to this group. The remaining 60 percent were committed by faculty (32 percent) and other lab professionals (28 percent).


Of the ORI cases studied, males committed 65 percent of frauds overall, and the analysts identified a clear trend within this gender skew: Men in higher positions were more likely to perpetrate misconduct than women in higher positions. The lower the professional rank, the more gender equality there was among the dishonest individuals. Among faculty members, men committed 88 percent of frauds; 69 percent of deceptive post-docs were male; 58 percent of student misconduct was by males; and 42 percent of research staff frauds were by men. The authors of the mBio study compared these numbers to the distribution of men and women working at the different professional levels in the life sciences and found that men were overrepresented as fraudsters, despite there being more men in such positions. 


Seeing the Bigger Picture 

One of the more common outcomes of fraud in the scientific community is the retraction of articles and studies from journals and other publications. However, in other business environments, the costs can be more significant, at times even bringing down entire organizations. Understanding who commits fraud and why is an important component of effectively preventing and deterring such crimes. So, can fraud examiners assume that the demographic trends found in the mBio study apply to all white-collar crimes in any industry, or are they specific to the scientific fields?


The ACFE conducts a survey of Certified Fraud Examiners every two years, in part to get to the root of demographic trends like these. The survey results are published in the Report to the Nations on Occupational Fraud and Abuse, and we can draw some conclusions about common characteristics of fraudsters from this report. According to the 2012 Report, lower-level employees were more likely to commit fraud against their employers, but the economic damage of a white-collar crime became more severe as the perpetrator’s position rose. For example, employees committed 42 percent of the reported frauds (similar to the 40 percent of frauds committed by trainees in the mBio article) and caused a median loss of $60,000. In contrast, although owners and executives only committed 18 percent of the occupational frauds reported, the median loss caused by this group was $573,000 — more than nine times the median loss caused by employees.



The gender disparity uncovered in Fang, Bennett and Casadevall’s article seems to carry over from the laboratories to the boardrooms as well, and the numbers are striking — again men committed 65 percent of the reported schemes and women committed 35 percent. Male fraudsters also caused larger median losses: $200,000 compared to women’s median loss of $91,000.



Demographics in Prevention Methods 

The authors of the mBio study raised interesting questions regarding demographic trends among fraudsters: Do men commit more fraud than women, or do they simply get caught more? Are men under more pressure to win prestige in the field, or perhaps are women deterred more by the threat of sanctions than men? The authors point to studies that indicate men take more risks and commit more crime in general than women, but we should stress the need for further research into these issues before drawing definitive conclusions.


However, for the immediate needs of fraud examiners working in the field, there are practical lessons to take away from these studies. The authors of the mBio study found that anti-fraud communications and prevention efforts in the scientific community were geared toward students and lower-level staff, based on the assumption that these individuals committed most of the misconduct. However, the study revealed that high-level professionals also committed dishonest and fraudulent acts. Therefore, prevention efforts should never exclude one or more groups of employees. The messages might need to be tailored for the distinct demographic groups, but everyone should be included in training and prevention measures.


The clear trend of men committing more fraud than women opens up opportunities for further research and new prevention methods. For instance, are men less susceptible to the anti-fraud messaging companies currently use? Are there gender-based fraud motivators that we need to focus on? Although we have made great progress in the anti-fraud field, I find it encouraging that there is always room for improvement and an opportunity to learn more about our profession; we just need to keep asking questions.




Contact the ACFE
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