Consistent with the hypothesized association, 28 RIO respondents perceived that their most recent finding of research misconduct occurred in circumstances in which good practices of research were 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, only about 10% of the respondents believed that research practices surrounding their most recent research misconduct case were better than typical in the research environment.
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 in the open-ended response from 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 … 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, four 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”. 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.
Second, related to the first finding, it is remarkable that at least half of the respondents did not provide ratings for three of the items they were asked about. That said, two of these three (allocation of funds and statistics) are not so surprising as ten and seven, respectively, of the RIOs concluded that the item was not applicable to their particular case. However, 9 of 23 respondents noted that they did not remember whether the individual in question had taken “one or more in person courses in responsible conduct of research.” It is of course possible that this item was simply forgotten even though it had been addressed at the time of the investigation. However, since so many of these RIOs readily reported on most of the other items listed, it seems more likely that the question of training in research ethics/integrity was simply not paramount in these research misconduct investigations. This is at the least surprising if it is assumed that training can help protect against the risk of research misconduct, which is the focus of the next finding.
A third 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, for those RIOs who responded, nearly two thirds of the individuals 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 (21), 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 (22). Nonetheless, it is a question worth investigating whether some forms of training might do better than others in mitigating the risk of research misconduct.
A fourth 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 had at least four 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.
Second, the focus of this survey was perceptions of these RIOs, not a definitive determination of whether these good practices of research were or were not present. Unfortunately, addressing the presence or absence of good practices of research is simply not paramount in investigations designed largely to assess whether or not research misconduct has occurred. In the absence of definitive cataloging of that information, this study is offered as an initial attempt to assess whether the hypothesis that the absence of such practices is permissive for research misconduct and is worth pursuing based on the perceptions of these RIOs.
Third, 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 (1), 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 because “it didn't fit …switched to an earlier case.”
Fourth, 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…”). The second case was arguably someone who perhaps had no connection to questions of morality at all (“…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.