As an important means of acquiring and creating knowledge, scientific research has established ethical norms and codes of conduct. However, there have been frequent incidents of scientific misconduct in China and abroad for the last few decades . Considering their detrimental effects on individuals’ health status (e.g., patients, etc.) and extensive financial costs levied upon healthcare systems, such wrongdoings have even more salience in medical sciences . In this context, it is very urgent and important to investigate the factors influencing medical researchers’ scientific misconduct for its prevention. However, the possible influence of medical researchers’ existing creative performance has received little attention in studies of scientific misconduct, and the moral psychological mechanisms underlying those effects are still poorly understood.
Scientific misconduct is unethical behavior such as fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism carried out by researchers during their work . Previous research has indicated that scientific misconduct is vulnerable to individual factors (such as individual characteristics, economic pressure, or excessive pursuit of personal reputation) and environmental factors (such as an imperfect organizational system or unethical academic climate) [4, 5]. Due to the universality and negative effects of scientific misconduct, existing studies have mostly explored the negative affecting factors of scientific misconduct but ignored the positive influencers. Considering the continuity and innovative nature of scientific research, research on the effect of medical researchers’ existing creative performance on their following scientific misconduct is very important, especially for the deep understanding of the causes and processes of scientific misconduct.
Creative performance is defined as engaging in creative behaviors such as suggesting novel and useful products, ideas, or procedures that provide an organization with important raw material for subsequent development and possible implementation . This definition emphasizes that novelty and usefulness are the criteria of creative performance. Existing studies shared the premise that creativity is beneficial for organizations [7, 8], however, the research to unveil the dark side of creativity was called for in the review of creativity literature . Additionally, Gino and Ariely found that creative individuals were more likely to engage in unethical behaviors since they were more capable of justifying their immoral behaviors .
Whereas following norms and moral standards requires conformity and convergent thinking, those with high creative performance possess a unique ability to engage in cognitive flexibility [10, 11] and divergent thinking . Consequently, individuals with high creative performance may be more likely to think outside the box in a variety of situations, including those relevant to ethics . Previous studies have found that greater creativity may promote dishonesty in two ways. On the one hand, it can help individuals find creative loopholes to solve difficult tasks they are facing, even if that entails crossing ethical boundaries. On the other hand, creativity may help individuals generate various credible reasons to justify their own actions before engaging in them – even when those actions are unethical . This means researchers who have creative performance may be positively associated with dishonest behavior, such as scientific misconduct .
Prior research suggested that people with a high level of creative performance may believe that their creative efforts could contribute to the organization, which may lead them to have a feeling of moral superiority, and thus, they consider themselves moral persons deserving extra preferential treatment . In addition, Zheng et al. found that employees with high creative performance are more likely to engage in workplace deviance . Therefore, creative performance is an important factor that may lead to scientific misconduct. However, the moral psychological mechanism of creative performance influences scientific misconduct needs to be further developed.
The moral licensing theory has often been used to explain why employees change “from good soldiers to bad apples” in the workplace [17, 18], which suggests that people will get a sense of privilege (moral licensing) from past positive behaviors that allow them to subsequently commit unethical behaviors . In other words, moral licensing means that people who have engaged in ethical behavior before will allow themselves to engage in unethical behavior in the future. Moral licensing provides an important theoretical perspective for exploring the psychological mechanism of scientific misconduct induced by creative performance. Although the moral licensing process may be a critical underlying mechanism to explain whether creative performance will allow individuals to break moral standards and further trigger their unethical behavior, current research that links creative performance and moral licensing called for more empirical support .
The first aim of this study was to apply moral licensing theory  to examine why and how medical researchers’ creative performance may increase scientific misconduct. We propose that medical researchers’ creative performance increases their abilities to justify their potential scientific misconduct. In other words, high creative performance facilitates the self-serving justification process by increasing capacities to develop credible rationalizations for engaging in scientific misconduct .
However, this prediction may not be true for all creative performance individuals; those who strive to maintain a positive and honest self-view maybe not susceptible to moral licensing . Individuals vary on moral identity—the centrality of moral traits in one’s overall self-concept —shapes how individuals perceive, form attitudes and react to their ethical stance and actions . Research has shown that individuals with high levels of moral identity tend to enact in accordance with their internal moral standards and in turn behave ethically . Due to its internalized moral self-regulation power, moral identity has been shown to buffer the impacts of certain factors (e.g., depletion) on moral licensing . Prior research has emphasized that moral identity is an important preventive source of undesirable outcomes such as organizational cynicism, workplace silence, and deviance .
We conceptualize moral identity as the cognitive schema a person holds about his or her moral character; it is a powerful source of moral motivation because people generally desire to maintain self-consistency. Moral identity reflects the degree of individual recognition of the general moral standards of society and describes the importance of moral values to individuals. Ormiston and Wong proposed that moral identity plays a moderating role in the process of individuals establishing moral licensing . Moral identity, as an important factor that highlights individual differences, may intervene and determine the strength of moral licensing and then affect subsequent behavior . Medical researchers with high moral identity may reduce the occurrence of scientific misconduct by inhibiting the establishment of moral licensing. Therefore, we further proposed that moral identity, a self-view regarding moral traits, is a key lever in determining when creativity performance is associated with moral licensing.
In summary, this study expands the research on the antecedent variables of scientific misconduct. Starting from the theoretical path of moral licensing, we analyze the impact of medical researchers’ creative performance on scientific misconduct and deeply examine the internal moral psychological mechanism of individuals. We advance the discussion of the influence factors of scientific misconduct beyond the negative side, which is conducive to a more systematic understanding of the antecedents of misconduct in scientific research. At the same time, moral identity, as an individual characteristic that affects individual moral cognition and moral behavior, provides a choice for the formation mechanism of moral cognition of scientific misconduct. Therefore, we examine the moderating role of different degrees of moral identity between medical researchers’ creative performance and moral licensing. Finally, our study reveals the path through which creative performance leads to scientific misconduct and the boundary conditions that affect the path by verifying the moderated mediation model, as shown in Fig. 1. Our findings enrich the theory of scientific misconduct from a moral psychology perspective.