Nature on Misconduct

Update: As noted below in Brendan’s comment , open discussion of this issue continues at Nature Network. Please join in there! The Chronicle is also having a lively discussion of “the oath” … and JAMA has a nice summary of why even well-intentioned folks cannot overcome unconscious bias caused by conflicts of interest, and The Lancet notes this commentary in covering a plagiarism case in the UK. Links to The Gallup Organization report on which this commentary is based can be found at ORI and below.

Update II: Nature has published letters from Bosch (exemplary standards in Croatia); Feder & Stewart (calculated dishonesty among senior researchers); Nussenzveig & Funchal (need for international ORI); Swazey (questions methodology); and the study authors (response to Swazey).

Nature reports a survey conducted by the Office of Research Integrity that, not surprisingly, finds that most misconduct goes unreported. Sandra Titus et al. found that the “2,212 researchers we surveyed observed 201 instances of likely misconduct over a three-year period. That’s 3 incidents per 100 researchers per year.” (an average of only 24 institutional investigation reports are submitted to ORI each year).
Titus et al. contacted 4,298 scientists holding NIH extramural research funds at 605 institutions.

In 2006, we asked participants to indicate the number of times they had observed suspected research misconduct in their own department in the past three academic years (2002–05). 2,212 scientists provided complete responses to questions concerning research misconduct (51% response rate). Of these, 192 scientists (8.7% ) indicated that they had observed or had direct evidence of researchers in their own department committing one or more incidents of suspected research misconduct over the past three academic years. The 192 scientists described a total of 265 incidents.

Scientists were asked to indicate how they became aware of the possible misconduct and were told to report observations and not hearsay. … We used these descriptions to validate whether the observation met the federal definition of research misconduct [fabrication, falsification, plagiarism].

Two people independently coded and evaluated the 265 descriptions to determine whether each met the federal definition of research misconduct. In all, 64 reports (24% of the total) did not meet the threshold of the federal definition — which left 201 observations of potential misconduct made by 164 scientists (7.4% ). These 201 misconduct observations included fabrication or falsification (60% ) and plagiarism only (36% ).

According to our respondents, 58% of the observed incidents had been reported to officials at their institutions.

The authors go on to extrapolate that annually “approximately 1,350 would have been reported [compared with actual number of 24] whereas almost 1,000 could be assumed to go unreported to any official.”

As a fan of work on procedural and distributive justice by Brian Martinson, Melissa Anderson, et al., I was particularly pleased to see the accompanying editorial, Solutions – not scapegoats, address the need to examine the environment as well as the individual:

Meanwhile, misconduct investigations all too often focus solely on an individual offender, and fail to diagnose the environment that has allowed misconduct to flourish. Instead, institutions should seize the opportunity to learn from the experience, and to address the bigger questions. For example, did the atmosphere in the lab create the pressure to cut corners? Or did the intensity of the tenure chase contribute? One way to address such questions might be through internal departmental discussions, in which everyone is free to admit mistakes, and discuss how to fix the problems instead of apportioning the blame.

Indeed, the authors suggest 6 strategies for championing research integrity at an institutonal level:

Adopt zero tolerance: “Social responsibility to the academic community and to the public who fund the research will be strengthened when it is apparent that an institution has a real commitment to integrity.”

Protect whistleblowers: “more than two-thirds of whistleblowers, in a Research Triangle Institute study, experienced at least one negative outcome as a direct result of their actions. Plus, 43% reported that institutions encouraged them to drop the allegation.”

Clarify how to report: Establish “a reporting system that clearly identifies the individuals to whom allegations should be brought, and establishing clear policies, procedures and guidelines related to misconduct and responsible conduct.”

Train the mentors: “Mentors specifically need to become more aware of their roles in establishing and maintaining research rules and minimizing opportunities to commit research misconduct. An institutional investment in building better mentors is an important vehicle to promoting research integrity.”

Use alternative mechanisms: “Auditing research records would be one such means. Mechanisms of review are needed to reduce deficient record keeping, improper protection of human or animal subjects or the utilization of questionable research behaviour.”

Model ethical behaviour: “Institutions successfully stop cheating, for example, when they have leaders who communicate what is acceptable behaviour, encourage faculty members and staff to follow the policies, develop fair and appropriate procedures for handling misconduct cases, focus on ways to develop and promote ethical behaviour, and provide clear deterrents that are communicated.”

In this same issue, Nature also cites the decision of the Ottawa Health Research Institute to suspend Kristin Roovers, whose case ORI closed and reported on last year.

Of course, the lively discussion of the Hellinga retraction is just that – a discussion of the retraction and the science involved, though I suspect we will eventually be discussing more formal issues of misconduct.


  1. Brendan Maher said

    Great Blog. I’ve cross posted this entry over at the Nature Network discussion forum on research misconduct here:

  2. Trevor Creamer said

    I found this Nature report both astounding and dismaying. I guess I’ve been rather naive in my assertions that such fraud is rare. There’s nothing like data to shoot down a naive view…

    Interestingly there’s a letter in the latest issue of Science from Davis et al. from the University of Toronto with a “Graduate Student Oath”. It contains the line:

    “Integrity: I promise never to allow financial gain, competitiveness, or ambition cloud my judgment in the conduct of ethical research and scholarship.”

    Since we apparently can’t rely on the integrity of people in science perhaps such oaths need to become the norm.

    “The great tragedy of science: the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact”. – Thomas Henry Huxley (a writedit favorite)

  3. bikemonkey said

    it is absurd to think that any oath is going to address patterns of misconduct in science. people express a fairly predictable range of ethical decision making. people also respond in predictable ways to environmental contingencies.

    real solutions take this into account and change environments such that misconduct is, on balance and average, not seen as the most rewarding alternative.

    I, too, am greatly heartened by the Solutions editorial to the extent that it recognizes environmental sources of tremendous pressure to act badly…

  4. Trevor said

    bikemonkey said:
    it is absurd to think that any oath is going to address patterns of misconduct in science.

    True enough.

    Well, but that does not mean it isn’t a good idea, especially implemented widely & publicly in the manner of say the Hippocratic Oath – so it means something to scientists joining the community of science (it’s not just a job, it’s a responsibility, and you are responsible to others for your own actions … though maybe reporting to a different set of gods & goddesses). Many colleges instill their honor code in incoming freshman as a sort of communal experience and shared commitment to each other. I know this would be difficult to implement in small scattered graduate programs with flexible start dates in dozens of disciplines and various schools … but assuming this wasn’t all the university relied on to maintain responsible conduct, it just might give a moment of pause for a few of these peeps. – writedit

  5. Trevor said

    Of course the Hippocratic Oath certainly hasn’t slowed down some not-so-reputable MD’s…

  6. bikemonkey said

    writedit- what I don’t like about that sort of thing is that people have a tendency to lose steam after they’ve DoneSomething. Or, worse, to assume the problem has been addressed when in fact it has not. all the tut-tutting and telling people the way they are supposed to behave when nothing has been done to address why they behave that way is doomed to failure.

    Which is why I said it couldn’t be the only thing an institution did. Good heavens, definitely not a Pollyanna fool here, and I agree with you about the tendency toward the done something, good to go scenario. I certainly wouldn’t look at this as likely to have any significant impact on those determined to engage in misconduct (just as the Hippocratic oath does not stop malpractice among MDs), but it costs nothing, can be universally implemented, and could instill a sense of vocation and responsibility and pride … not that this feel-good glow will help pay the lab bills, of course. Still, it’s not just a job – a wide community are counting on those data to be collected and reported in a scientifically sound and responsible manner, so why not have folks publicly acknowledge they accept this responsibility (& perhaps even think about it for a moment in the process). Or do you think the more honest approach is to have them recognize aloud that they are dooming themselves to years of shoestring income, high stress, sleep deprivation, and dropping odds of success in pursuing an academic research career? -writedit

  7. bikemonkey said

    We created an oath to be recited voluntarily at the first meeting of each year’s new graduate student body in IMS. We specifically chose to hold the oath ceremony at the entry point to graduate studies rather than at graduation day in order to introduce students to these concepts early. In constructing our oath, we took a simple but holistic approach to emphasize three aspects of scientific training at the graduate level: community, professionalism, and ethical conduct, through declarations of pride, integrity, and pursuit. The text of the Institute of Medical Science Graduate Student Oath follows.


    Thanks for calling this out, BM, as I haven’t had a chance to read the Science piece since Trevor cited it (on the road). Although not a cure-all, it could well be meaningful for some people … maybe the sort of people who will later observe misconduct and realize it is important not to stay quiet. In the meantime, we’re waiting for you psych types to answer the “why” thing … though I still put money on the impact of environment/climate as being a key factor contributing to misbehavior and misconduct. – writedit

  8. BB said

    Pressure on grad students/ post-docs/ residents to come up with data that fits the big cheese’s favorite theory, pet theory, or theory du jour is enormous. When I worked for Big Pharma, one of the Grand Old Men of my department told me he just never believed data gathered by a grad student/ post-doc/resident due to the pressures coming from above. At the time I thought, “What a cynic.” Since moving to academe and to a department of surgery where the biggest lab belongs to the chair, I have now become as cynical as that GOM of Big Pharma.
    Without protection for underlings (so they can finish without retribution), an oath ain’t gonna do diddly.

    Thanks for posting this universal truth. I agree about being skeptical of student data in high-powered labs … and, again, I agree an oath alone won’t do squat. But, perhaps the process of adding an oath (think of all the committees that would need to consider and approve this) will inspire depts/schools/universities to address the rest of the shortcomings, such as protection for whistleblowers, encouraging honesty and openness within their academic community, transparency in how the research enterprise is managed and overseen, objective procedures for distributing resources, meaningful management of COI, and so on. One can only hope, especially when the alternative is the status quo. – writedit

  9. writedit said

    Okay – so I’ve finally gone and read the letter in Science discussing this Graduate Student Oath and see that indeed they too had the Hippocratic Oath in mind as a model. Nice to see the Institute of Science in Toronto is augmenting the oath with additional seminars and educational modules, which may counter some of the increasingly ingrained cultural perception that cheating for self-gain is okay (previous post notes how early this concept begins). However, as we’ve already noted among ourselves, “improved strategies for instilling basic values about acceptable and expected behavior” will only succeed if the research environment and climate support such a cultural change. I’m sure ORI is all ears as to how this might be effectively accomplished and replicated across institutions. Me too.

  10. writedit said

    ORI has links on its homepage to The Gallup Organization report on which the Nature commentary is based (I suspect these files will eventually be listed here). In addition to the full report, you can download the Nature commentary, the questionnaire used, the codebook, and the dataset (read-only SPSS file).

  11. […] Mentoring in Closed ORI Cases by David Wright, Sandra Titus (who in June published data on the underreporting of misconduct), and Jered […]

  12. […] here and in Nature… not to mention the ORI survey data published in Nature about the underreporting of scientific misconduct (beyond the side bar comment by John […]

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