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Scientific Misconduct 

Scientific Misconduct
Ethical and Legal Considerations

Annette Flanagin

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Scientific Misconduct

  • We should ignore whining about the supposedly
  • awful pressures of “publish or perish” when we have
  • little credible evidence on what motivates
  • misconduct, nor on what motivates the conduct
  • of honest, equally stressed colleagues. Laziness,
  • desire for fame, greed, and an inability to
  • distinguish right from wrong are just as likely
  • to be at the root of the problem.
  •     Drummond Rennie1

In scientific publication, the phrase scientific misconduct (specifically termed research misconduct by US government regulations and commonly known as fraud) has both ethical and legal connotations for authors and editors. A few studies (with limited methodologies) have estimated the prevalence of scientists who have participated in scientific misconduct to range from 1% to 2%.2-4 In a 2002 survey5 of a random sample of scientists funded by the US National Institutes of Health, 3247 participating scientists reported engaging in a number of unethical behaviors, including falsifying research data (0.3%), using another’s ideas without permission or credit (1.4%), and inadequate record keeping related to research projects (27.5%). Although inadequate record keeping is not a form of misconduct in itself, it could permit misconduct to occur and make investigations of misconduct difficult to conduct. Legal determinations of scientific misconduct in biomedical publication are uncommon, although, when discovered, such misconduct results in serious questions about the validity of scientific research and the credibility of authors and journals. Proven cases of misconduct in the published literature as well as allegations and concerns that do not result in an official finding of misconduct raise important ethical questions and impose duties on authors and editors to protect and correct the literature.

Over the years, various definitions of scientific misconduct have been suggested by US government agencies and academic institutions, especially after highly publicized incidents of fraudulent research in the United States in the mid-1970s and early 1980s.6-8 In 1989, the US Public Health Service released the following definition of scientific misconduct: “fabrication, falsification, plagiarism, or other practices that seriously deviate from those that are commonly accepted within the scientific community for proposing, conducting, or reporting research.”9 This definition was considered a practical tool for recognizing and dealing with allegations of scientific misconduct during the manuscript submission, review, and publication processes.10 However, controversy grew over various interpretations of the definition (eg, how narrow or broad should the definition be? does the definition address intent or levels of seriousness of offense? can the definition stand up in court? can the definition serve multiple sciences?).

In the wake of this controversy, the US Public Health Service appointed a Commission on Research Integrity in 1993. One of the charges of the commission was to develop a better definition of scientific misconduct. In 1995, the commission released a detailed report that included a recommendation that the definition be amended to include offenses that constitute research misconduct: misappropriation, interference, and misrepresentation.11 This definition replaced the word plagiarism with the broader term misappropriation; replaced the words fabrication and falsification with the term misrepresentation; and added the term interference to address instances “in which a person’s research is seriously compromised by the intentional and unauthorized taking, sequestering, or damaging of property he or she used in the conduct of research.”11 In this context, property included apparatus, reagents, biologic materials, writings, data, and software.

The commission’s definition was not adopted by the US Public Health Service for many reasons, including protests from scientists and some science groups to which the government responded that it wanted a definition that would work for all governmental departments (eg, both the US Public Health Service and the National Science Foundation, which at the time had different definitions).10,12 In 1996, the National Science and Technology Council, a unit within the Office of Science and Technology Policy responsible for coordinating policy among multiple government research agencies, drafted a common definition, which, after review and comment, was approved and released in 2000.13 This definition no longer contained a category of misconduct in the original 1989 definition: “other practices that seriously deviate from those that are commonly accepted within the scientific community for proposing, conducting, or reporting research.”

The revised common definition was reviewed again in 2004 and reissued without substantial change in 2005 by the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) (although there were other changes to correct errors and improve clarity in the overall policy).14

The current common definition of research misconduct from the DHHS follows14:

Research misconduct is defined as fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results.

Fabrication is making up data or results and recording or reporting them.

Falsification is manipulating research materials, equipment, or processes, or changing or omitting data or results such that the research is not accurately represented in the research record.

Plagiarism is the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit.

Research misconduct does not include honest error or differences of opinion. A finding of research misconduct requires that:

  • there be a significant departure from accepted practices of the relevant research community; and

  • the misconduct be committed intentionally, or knowingly, or recklessly; and

  • the allegation be proven by a preponderance of evidence.

None of the definitions of scientific misconduct include honest error or differences in interpretation. Nor do they include or pertain to violations of human or animal experimentation requirements (5.8, Protecting Research Participants' and Patients' Rights in Scientific Publication), financial mismanagement/misconduct, or other acts covered by existing laws, such as sexual harassment, copyright, confidentiality, libel (see 5.6.3, Intellectual Property: Ownership, Access, Rights, and Management, Copyright: Definition, History, and Current Law; 5.7, Confidentiality; and 5.9, Defamation, Libel), or other concerns, such as authorship disputes, duplicate publication, self-plagiarism without indication of one’s previous work, or conflicts of interest.4-6(See 5.1, Authorship Responsibility; 5.3, Duplicate Publication; and 5.5, Conflicts of Interest.)

The DHHS common definition of research misconduct is intended to apply to US government-funded research, and academic and research institutions that accept government funding must comply with the definition and associated regulations. However, this definition and associated regulations have become de facto rules for US academic and other research institutions and are applied to any work done by their employees or under their aegis regardless of the source of funding. These institutions often have other rules that cover “other practices that seriously deviate from those that are commonly accepted within the scientific community for proposing, conducting, or reporting research.”9

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