In a recent opinion piece in Nature Magazine, (July 20, 2010), Gerald Koocher and Patricia Keith-Spiegel report on the results of a survey seeking to understand the behaviors and interventions of scientific researchers who suspect colleagues of scientific misconduct. Funded by a grant from the Office of Research Integrity (ORI), the confidential, online survey was fielded among investigators funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
The survey results indicated that there is a much higher rate of informal intervention into cases of suspect misconduct than expected: nearly two-thirds (63%) of survey respondents who had suspected research misconduct intervened in some way. In addition, many of those who took action reported satisfaction with the results of their interventions: 28% reported that they had been able to resolve the problem, and the chances of a positive or negative outcome were approximately even. Equal numbers of respondents indicated that their interventions led them to gain or lose respect. As the researchers point out, these results complicate earlier studies suggesting that researchers tend to avoid intervention to protect their careers.
The Nature piece sheds light on a number of issues raised in other recent research on research misconduct. A central question, and one highlighted by the article’s authors, is whether there needs to be greater attention to “‘lesser’ forms of responsible research” that may be more easily observed by colleagues working together on a research project than willful cases of fabrication and falsification. Yet another question is whether formal compliance measures need to be supplemented by additional, socially-enforced norms and values within scientific and professional communities.
The survey report offers an opportunity for reflection and discussion among members of institutions seeking to promote a strong culture of research integrity. The following questions might serve as a starting point for this discussion:
- What steps can institutions take to promote open and informal discussions among colleagues and graduate students about questionable research practices and suspected acts of misconduct?
- How can institutions balance the need for compliance and formal investigation of research misconduct with a culture of openness and honest discussion?
- What models for “difficult discussions” about research integrity exist at your own institution? Where should these discussions take place—in the context of formal research training for graduate students, within the mentoring and advising relationship, programs supporting professional development, peer mentoring programs?
Program Manager, Project for Scholarly Integrity
Council of Graduate Schools