Misconduct in research is a serious ethical and legal issue that can carry heavy institutional cost. Although most scientists pursue ethical, responsible research, human beings are fallible. Recent stories about scientific misconduct highlight the importance of accountability in research.
What is research misconduct?
The U.S. federal government officially defines research misconduct as: “fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results.”
Fabrication is making up data or results and recording or reporting them.
Falsification is manipulating research materials, equipment, or processes, or changing or omitting data or results such that the research is not accurately represented in the research record.
Plagiarism is the appropriation of another person's ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit.
Any institution or individual seeking federal funding for research studies is required to have written policies and procedures for addressing allegations of research misconduct.
Recent settlements in research misconduct
Duke University recently settled an unprecedented lawsuit over falsified data used to obtain federal research grants. As detailed by the Chronicle of Higher Education, the case was pursued by a former lab analyst who reported that a research technician at Duke improperly falsified and fabricated data to obtain research funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other federal agencies
Duke will pay $112.5 million in the settlement, including repayment of grants received as a result of the falsified data, associated penalties, and a multi-million dollar payout to the whistleblower. In addition, Duke has set up an advisory panel on research integrity and excellence and implemented steps to improve the quality and integrity of research conducted on campus.
In another recent case, the University of Illinois-Chicago payed a $3.1 million penalty to the federal government following disclosure that a prominent psychiatrist violated approved guidelines and safety precautions in a clinical trial on the effects of lithium use in children. Although the penalty was announced in spring 2018, it took a year for the university to release documents showing that the institutional review board (IRB) had missed several warning signs that the clinical trial was compromised, as reported by the Chicago Sun-Times and Propublica.
Preventing research misconduct
In both cases outlined above, the universities have publicly acknowledged that they did not catch research misconduct before it was too late, but maintain that responsibility lies with with the individual researchers who knowingly bypassed institutional safeguards.
While it’s difficult to predict individual behavior, institutional safeguards can help to identify and discourage misconduct. Comprehensive researcher training, regular auditing, and consistent administrative oversight can help to ensure ethical practices; the Society of Research Administrators International has an excellent Research Integrity Toolkit.
Taking accountability for mistakes while working to correct them only strengthens research in the long run, and sharing pitfalls in practices will enable others to learn and improve their own research processes. As Duke president Vincent E. Price said in an official statement, “This settlement…should not diminish the life-changing and life-saving work that takes place at every day at Duke. Our difficulties in ferreting out and ending such misconduct remind us that important work remains to be done.”
Sources and additional reading
1. Chronicle of Higher Education: Duke to Pay $112.5 Million to Settle Scientific-Misconduct Lawsuit
“The lawsuit, filed by a former lab analyst, Joseph Thomas, alleged that from 2006 to 2013 a research technician, Erin Potts-Kant, fabricated data that Duke used to get research funding from the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency.”
2. Duke University: Duke and U.S. Government Reach Settlement
“We expect Duke researchers to adhere always to the highest standards of integrity, and virtually all of them do that with great dedication. When individuals fail to uphold those standards, and those who are aware of possible wrongdoing fail to report it, as happened in this case, we must accept responsibility, acknowledge that our processes for identifying and preventing misconduct did not work, and take steps to improve.”
“Documents newly obtained by ProPublica Illinois show that UIC acknowledged to federal officials that it had missed several warning signs that Dr. Mani Pavuluri’s clinical trial on lithium had gone off track, eventually requiring the university to pay an unprecedented $3.1 million penalty to the federal government.”
4. Science: After the Fall
“Some scientists debarred for research misconduct remain on the faculty. How that happens may surprise you.”