The results from this study are consistent with the hypothesis that research misconduct occurs in circumstances in which good practices of research are absent. The premise of this study came from an insight from teaching responsible conduct of research that many recommended practices (e.g., being open and transparent, understanding and appropriate use of statistics, or keeping good records) would in theory make it harder for someone to commit research misconduct. In fact, it is easy to imagine that any one of the listed practices (Table 1) might be a serious impediment to such misconduct. While the present study was not a prospectively designed double blind trial – a study that would be difficult if not impossible to conduct – it does provide some insight into the circumstances present in a few recent cases of research misconduct in some of the leading academic universities of North America.
As summarized above, the environment in which these cases of research misconduct occurred was characterized by deficits in one or more of the selected practices noted in Table 1. In only one of the cases did the respondent note that all of these research practices were in place. Otherwise, more than half of the respondents were able to identify only one of the ten listed good practices as characterizing the circumstances in which the case of research misconduct had occurred. It is noteworthy that these items for the most part are not extraordinary expectations, but rather approaches to research that one might assume would be typical. Fortunately, 90% of the respondents believed that typical research practices were no worse if not better than those seen in these cases of misconduct.
While the list of good practices of research listed above is by no means comprehensive, it is perhaps not surprising that the practices most frequently seen as deficient could all be categorized as people/social issues: being open and transparent, feeling empowered to speak up if needed, and having a group in which the leader is a good manager of people. The next two practices most frequently seen as deficient were very clearly related to data: designing of research studies to protect from bias and effective data management. In all five of these cases, it is easy to see how much harder it would be for research misconduct to have occurred if these practices had been in place.
While protecting from the risk of research misconduct is an important goal, it is not the only possible benefit of improving standard practices of research. As noted by one of the respondents, poor management and oversight can create an environment in which there is an increased risk of questionable research practices:
“The PI managed a large group of researchers, but did not adequately manage or oversee their work to the extent where they were able to identify [questionable] research practices, nor were they able to produce proper research records when requested. Although it was misconduct, it stemmed mostly from careless management, mentoring, and research practices rather than an outright effort to deceive.”
In addition to the intended primary focus on good practices of research as a protection from research misconduct, three incidental observations are noteworthy. First, despite the possible relevance of these good practices to the risk of research misconduct, 8% of the possible answers about these good practices were marked as “Don’t know or don’t remember” (data not shown). It seems as a minimum that such information would be an opportunity to better understand the circumstances that allowed research misconduct to occur. More importantly, this could be a window allowing for better design of options to strengthen the research enterprise and to protect against future cases. Perhaps questions about research practices should more routinely be part of all research misconduct investigations.
A second incidental finding from this study is a reminder that we should not put too much stock in the protective value of training in responsible conduct of research. As summarized above, nearly two thirds of those who had committed research misconduct had taken an in person course in responsible conduct of research and half had taken an online course in responsible conduct of research. Admittedly, the quality of courses may be a factor (Antes et al. 2009), but this finding is consistent with other studies that have emphasized the importance of what happens in the research environment rather than courses per se (Anderson et al. 2007).
A third and final incidental finding from this project is that many institutions likely have room to improve in transparency about where and how to report allegations of research misconduct. Despite the author’s familiarity with the field, it was often challenging to find the right individual. Specific examples were not recorded at the time the study was conducted, but as recently as June 2020 Google searches for “Research Integrity Officer” at the 62 AAU institutions resulted in nine instances (=15%) with no hits. Unfortunately, even those with pages including the words “Research Integrity Officer” provided information about roles and/or responsibilities for the position but failed to clearly identify where the RIO could be found and how to lodge an allegation of research misconduct. To the extent this is true, it is another opportunity for improvement.
This study has a number of limitations that should be noted. First, it is far from comprehensive. Respondents represented only a sampling of North American universities. The survey asked only about the one, most recent case of research misconduct. The questions asked about good practices of research are only a sampling of the many practices that might be relevant to the responsible conduct of research. Nonetheless, the survey answers provided are sufficient to illustrate the principle that such factors are worth considering as being permissive if not supportive of cases of research misconduct.
One oversight of this study was the failure to distinguish between different forms of research misconduct. Although fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism are all considered research misconduct according to a government-wide definition in the US (Office of Science and Technology Policy 2000), plagiarism differs from the other two categories in that it does not necessarily involve a misrepresentation or manipulation of research data. To a large extent, fabrication and falsification were the intended focus for the present survey. Many of the questions clearly represent factors less likely to be relevant to plagiarism than to fabrication or falsification. It isn’t clear how many if any of the respondents were referencing plagiarism cases, but at least one noted the concern and chose to address an earlier case that was not about plagiarism:
“The most recent case involved plagiarism, but I realized that it didn't fit well with your questions, so I switched to an earlier case.”
Although the premise of this study is to call attention to the possibility that the simple adoption of good practices of research would create an environment inhospitable to committing research misconduct, there are clearly cases in which that may be much less relevant. At least two such cases were cited in this study. The first is an instance in which the individual presumably recognized that they were violating accepted norms, but had no respect for them at all:
“The [accused] in this case had no moral compass. They created a story that they felt would play well with the committee members, colleagues and superiors out of whole fabric. It was only when this pathology became apparent, that the members of the committee and panel could step outside of norms of responsible conduct [to recognize] someone who did not respect those norms.”
The second case was arguably someone who perhaps had no connection to questions of morality at all:
“Because this survey was based on my most recent research misconduct case, I am afraid it [is] not very accurate. That case was a confession by someone who systematically changed data, sometimes for no apparent reason.”
Although both of the above cases might be instances in which the individual would not have been swayable by the good practices of their colleagues, it does still seem plausible that (for example) a collaborative and transparent research environment would have made it harder for them to commit their misconduct.