Preventing Research Abuse Will Require Systemic Changes

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By Jeannie Baumann

Irresponsible or abusive actions in research beyond the narrow legal definition of misconduct pose serious challenges to sustaining the highest standards of research integrity in the U.S., a National Academies concluded in a report released April 11.

The report, Fostering Integrity in Research, is the Academies’ first look at this subject since its report on responsible science 25 years ago. But major changes in the research environment since 1992 have created new challenges in fostering integrity in research, Robert M. Nerem, chairman of the committee that produced the report, said at an April 11 release event.

“Research has really been transformed by technologies, by the globalization of research, collaboration across disciplines,” Nerem said.

The report also comes out a time when the White House is proposing to cut federal funding for biomedical research by nearly 20 percent. Nerem, who is a Georgia Institute of Technology professor, said the possibility of reduced research funding also leads to an “ever-growing competition.”

‘Integrity is Everything’

Integrity is probably the most important quality a scientist can have, Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences, said during the April 11 event.

“If you don’t have integrity,” McNutt said, “no one is going to pay any attention to the scientific papers you write or the work you produce. Your integrity is everything.”

Kathy Partin, director of the Health and Human Services Office of Research Integrity, told Bloomberg BNA in an April 11 email: “We thank the National Academies for their hard work on this and we look forward to reviewing the report.”

Research Misconduct

The legal definition of research misconduct is limited to the falsification, fabrication or plagiarism of data. The report also seeks to address what the committee termed “detrimental research practices,” or activities that clearly damage research even if they fall outside the statuary definition of misconduct.

Some examples of detrimental practices include: misleading statistical analysis that falls short of falsification; neglectful or exploitative supervision in research; demanding authorship in return for access to previously collected data or materials; and abusive or irresponsible publication practices by journal editors and peer reviewers.

“We felt very strongly that we needed to go beyond simply focusing on individual researchers,” Nerem said. “We really needed to have a broader focus looking at the entire system because it’s not simply research misconduct, there are also are other practices in research that are detrimental to the research enterprise.”

While the committee endorsed the definition of research misconduct, Nerem said it also wanted to focus on detrimental research practices.

Research Integrity Advisory Board

The report proposed creation of a nonprofit research integrity advisory board that would work with researchers, research institutions, research sponsors and regulators, journals and scientific societies without adding another regulatory or legal layer, Nerem said.

“We don’t think more regulations is the way to, in any way, foster research integrity,” he said. “We expect this research integrity advisory board to increase the capacity of institutions to foster integrity, to serve as a forum to share knowledge and expertise, and be a focal point of efforts to improve standards of consensus.”

Go Beyond Compliance Requirements

The committee called on research institutions to go beyond complying with the federal regulations for research misconduct ( 42 C.F.R. 50, 93) and maintaining a culture that fosters research integrity. They also want institutions and federal agencies to protect good-faith whistle-blowers, citing previous inadequate responses to misconduct allegations that have “constituted a critical point of failure in many cases of misconduct where investigations were delayed or sidetracked.”

“Those who raise concerns are often the most vulnerable participants in the system, typically holding little institutional power or status,” the report said.

The report also called on societies and journals to develop clear disciplinary authorship standards based on the principle of “those who have made a significant intellectual contribution are authors.”

Other recommendations include:

  •  Federal funding agencies and other research sponsors should enable the long-term storage, archiving and access of data sets and code necessary for the replication of published findings.
  •  Researchers should routinely disclose all statistical tests carried out, including negative findings.
  •  Government agencies and private foundations that support research should fund research to quantify, and develop responses to, conditions in the research environment that may be linked to research misconduct and detrimental research practices.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeannie Baumann in Washington at jbaumann@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Randy Kubetin at RKubetin@bna.com

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