A survey on research ethics among publicly-funded U.S. scientists has exposed higher than expected rates of misconduct and serious underreporting issues, sparking questions about the effectiveness of self-regulation.
The survey, commissioned through the U.S. Office of Research Integrity, polled more than 2,200 researchers on scientific misconduct, which the ORI describes as “fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results.” The goal was to investigate why so few cases of research fraud were being reported to the ORI.
The survey authors, writing in Nature June 19, estimated there could be as many as 2,325 potential research fraud cases a year, of which only about 58 per cent are reported to university officials. They report “an alarming picture of underreporting.”
The authors conclude there are several explanations for unreported instances of misconduct — from individuals who may be reluctant to cast suspicion on their colleagues to institutions that are likely reluctant to report cases that might tarnish their reputations, impact on funding, or lead to costly and time-consuming investigations.
It’s a problem that must be fixed, the authors contend, because “the way in which research misconduct is policed and corrected reflects the integrity of the whole enterprise of science.” They propose a zero tolerance policy among institutions, requiring that all incidents be reported, adding that institutions can also demonstrate a genuine commitment to research integrity by taking steps to protect whistle blowers and clarifying reporting procedures. They suggest that rather than just relying on formal complaints, that institutions should pro-actively monitor research, for example, by auditing research records.
They also call for a new system of mentored career development in research ethics for junior status researchers and highlight the need for strong leadership, because “people imitate the behaviour of powerful role models.”
Institutions successfully stop cheating, the authors report, 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.”
Nigel Lloyd, executive vice-president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, says that unfortunately, there is every reason to expect that the reality in other countries, including Canada, is parallel with the U.S. situation.
“There hasn’t been a similar study conducted in Canada, but there’s no reason to think that Canadian researchers are any less likely or more likely to commit scientific misconduct,” he said.
He points to efforts underway to review how research integrity is monitored in Canada. In January 2007, the country’s three major research-granting agencies, along with several foundations and associations, including CAUT and the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, came together to form the Canadian Research Integrity Committee, to foster the discuss of issues.
“We need to ensure that our policies and procedures are as robust as they can be,” Lloyd said. “This is essential in order to maintain public confidence in the research system. One case of misconduct is one too many.”