The cornerstone of research and scholarship is trust. The public and other professionals must be able to trust that research being reported is honest, accurate, and as free from bias as possible. Each researcher or scholar has the responsibility to foster this relationship of trust by conducting ethical, quality research.
The issue of research misconduct has been written about extensively, and policies and definitions exist to clearly define behaviors that constitute misconduct. It is important to realize, however, that poor (and possibly unethical) research practices are not confined to our current definition of misconduct. The phrase "responsible conduct of research" is appropriate to describe research and scholarship that is conducted ethically and with integrity, and that avoids not only misconduct but questionable practices that fall short of responsible behavior.
The list of questionable research practices is long and ever-expanding, and can include things like poor data management, failing to share data, questionable data selection methods, fiscal mismanagement, or inadequate supervision of graduate students or postdocs. What can happen when a researcher acts questionably? Typically, when others discover the questionable unethical act, the researcher's reputation becomes damaged and the credibility of current and future research may be questioned. It could lead to greater scrutiny and oversight in the future. It may also limit the acceptance of publications in certain journals, depending on the nature of the unethical act.
Acts of research misconduct can result in much more severe penalties that can be truly damaging to a researcher's career. The US federal government (45 CFR 689) has defined research misconduct as
- Fabrication: making up data or results and recording or reporting them
- Falsification: 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: the appropriation of another person's ideas, processes, results or words without giving appropriate credit.
When federal funding is involved in cases involving research misconduct, the funding agency may impose sanctions on the researcher. The most common sanctions are debarment from receipt of future federal funding for a period of time, usually 3 to five years but possibly for life, and supervision and certification of future research funded by the agency. Depending on the nature of research being conducted, the agency and the academic institution have the ability to halt the research, particularly if the research might have safety implications for the research participants or the general public. Acts of research misconduct also tend to reach the media and threaten public trust in research.
- Policy RA10: Handling Inquiries/Investigations Into Questions of Ethics in Research and in Other Scholarly Activities
To establish a means to handle inquiries and/or investigations into questions of ethics related to research and other scholarly activities.
- Guideline RAG16: The Responsible Conduct Of Research
The Pennsylvania State University is committed to fostering integrity in the conduct of research. All members of the research community, including faculty, research staff, students, fellows, adjunct faculty, and visiting researchers, are expected to adhere to the highest ethical and professional standards as they pursue research activities to further scientific understanding.
The goal of the Guidelines is to offer a set of values, principles, and standards to guide decision-making and conduct throughout the research process. It is not intended to provide a set of rules that prescribe how researchers should act in all situations. Rather, the Guidelines are intended to increase awareness of research integrity and outline the University's expectations for ethical behavior amongst all researchers.
The Guidelines discussed are not mutually exclusive. There are many circumstances when many of them apply to a single project or activity. The risks of non-adherence to the Guidelines can be both personally and institutionally great. Potential consequences of non-adherence are outlined in the University polices that form the foundation for these Guidelines.
- Research Integrity
By Michelle Stickler, Pennsylvania State University
Access to select articles is provided free of charge by Penn State Libraries. To access these articles from a non-campus location, you must authenticate using the Penn State Virtual Private Network (VPN).
- Altman, Ellen, and Hernon, Peter (1997) Research Misconduct: Issues, Implications, and Strategies (Google Books link - not full text) Greenwood Publishing Group.
- Sox, H.C., and Drummond, R (2006) Research Misconduct, Retraction, and Cleansing the Medical Literature: Lessons from the Poehlman Case. Annals of Internal Medicine 144: 609-613
- Steinberg, Jane (2002) Misconduct of Others: Prevention Techniques for Researchers. APA Observer Volume 15, no. 1