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Ethical Challenges

9. Scientific Integrity

No matter how good the system to protect human, animal and environmental welfare and encourage ethical behavior, the actual conduct of research cannot be monitored all of the time. Investigators and their research teams need to be trusted to behave appropriately. There are bound to be breaches, some intentional and frank misconduct and others the outcome of sloppy practices, poor supervision and/or error. Unethical practices led to the establishment of research ethics commissions and the regulations that have the force of law to govern research. Concerns about scientific misconduct resulted in the establishment of a federal Office of Research Integrity (ORI) as well as policies to encourage ethical research and other responsible conduct. The Office of Research Integrity engages in education, research, and investigations as well as imposes sanctions for scientific misconduct. The definition of scientific misconduct and the US federal policy governing it is available at the Office of Research Integrity and at the Federal Register.

Of the allegations made to the Office of Research Integrity, about 2% result in findings of scientific misconduct, i.e. fabrication, falsification or plagiarism. Misbehavior that does not fit the definition of scientific misconduct is more frequent. In a meta-analysis, Fanelli, 2009 reported that up to 72% of respondents report that they have direct knowledge of questionable research practices.

Example 7


Example A: A professor working on cardiac function and aging is hoping to develop a new drug…

Example B: A trainee on a training grant contacts the funding agency and claims that he is being paid less than the stipend requested and approved for trainees…

Example C: A researcher in molecular mechanisms of diabetes publishes a paper that attracts the attention of a biotech company…

Example D: A junior faculty member submits a manuscript for publication of federally-supported work she completed as a postdoctoral fellow at another institution…

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Example A:

A professor working on cardiac function and aging is hoping to develop a new drug.  He asks a colleague who works for industry to share some data from related work.  The colleague is willing to share his data but asks that it be kept confidential and not shared with others.  The data, when it arrives, is stamped “confidential – Pre-IND” and the request for confidentiality is repeated in a cover letter.  The professor submits a grant application.  During scientific review, a reviewer alleges that the preliminary work section of the application contains data that were obtained in another lab without that investigator’s knowledge or permission. The principal investigator on the grant application represented another scientist’s work as his own.  The review administrator suggests that review of the application be deferred and says that she will contact the Office of Research Integrity.  Assuming the allegation is found to have substance and merit in an inquiry and investigation, what is the ethical breach(es) in this case?

Scientific misconduct - Plagiarism and falsification of research experience by presenting another’s work as his own.

Example B:

A trainee on a training grant contacts the funding agency and claims that he is being paid less than the stipend requested and approved for trainees.The funding agency contacts the institution, requests financial records and progress reports, and prepares to conduct an audit. The agency finds that there are trainees listed for whom there is no documentation of appointment, that some progress reports involve trainees who do not meet funding agency eligibility requirements, that some progress reports duplicate those from prior years, and that financial records do not correspond to appointments or to projects.  What is the ethical breach in this case.

Financial mismanagement - This is not scientific misconduct according to US federal definition but is not responsible conduct. However, falsification might also be involved here. The researcher has hired trainees who are ineligible because of policy and/or legal requirements of the funding agency.  The researcher, in signing the application, has assured compliance with all requirements, a false assurance.

Example C:

A researcher in molecular mechanisms of diabetes publishes a paper that attracts the attention of a biotech company.  A senior scientist from the company meets with the researcher.  The company scientist proposes that they develop a collaborative relationship and offers additional support for the research, including two technicians, for three years.  The offer is attractive to the researcher.  A week later the researcher receives a collaborative research agreement.  It documents the offer and also contains other provisions.  One is that the researcher and company scientists will co-author all papers, that the company must have access to all data, that company statisticians will conduct the analyses and that company officials will approve all publications prior to submission.  What is the ethical issue(s)?  What should the researcher do?

Conflict of interest - The researcher should decline the proposed arrangements if s/he is unable to negotiate an alternative arrangement.

Example D: 

A junior faculty member submits a manuscript for publication of federally-supported work she completed as a postdoctoral fellow at another institution.  The journal editor, in reviewing the manuscript, suspected that several figures in the manuscript were manipulated.  The editor notified ORI.  ORI, in turn, notified the institution where the work was done and that institution began an inquiry that led to an investigation. The author, as a graduate student and postdoctoral fellow, was found to have manipulated or falsified more than 20 images, reused control data and reported inaccurate data in progress reports and grant applications. 

  • Did the junior faculty member commit scientific misconduct? 
  • What actions should be taken as a result of the behavior? 
  • What other issues does this case raise?

Scientific misconduct, data falsification, and fabrication - Retractions of published papers is appropriate. Societies at which presentations were made should be notified. This case raises the issue of adequacy of supervision and mentorship.  If an editor spotted the manipulation of data, it is highly likely the mentor would have noticed if s/he had reviewed the primary data and the manuscripts.  Perhaps new policies about supervision and mentoring need to be implemented by this institution.