Defending Research Misconduct Cases Part 2 – What is Research Misconduct?

Close-up shot of microscopeBy: Sara Kropf

When are you accused of a crime, you can look up the statute that defines the crime and then your lawyer can research court cases that interpret it. All of that information helps to defend against the charges.

This information can also help you determine what conduct is illegal so you can avoid engaging in it in the first place.

When it comes to research misconduct, though, information is scarce. There are very few court decisions. And, even though there is an administrative process to challenge findings of research misconduct, that process rarely results in a written opinion that provides helpful guidance.

Despite the lack of information, understanding the definition of research misconduct is a key element to defending against these types of allegations. You may be surprised how broad the definition of “research misconduct” is.

Official Definition

The official definition of research misconduct is the “fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results.” 42 CFR § 93.103.

That seems like a fairly straightforward definition, but not exactly filled with details to help defend against charges.

Most Common Types of Research Misconduct

Some sub-categories of research misconduct are defined in the regulations; some are not.

Here is a list of the most common types of research misconduct:

  1. Plagiarism. Plagiarism is defined as “appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit.” 42 C.F.R. § 93.103(c). This means taking someone else’s research results, the words they use to describe their research, or their methodology and passing it off as your own. The key element is that the researcher does so without citing the other person.
  2. Self-plagiarism. You may think it’s impossible to steal from yourself, but think again. This type of misconduct occurs if the researcher takes her own work from the past and passes it off as brand-new work. Again, the key element is that the researcher does not indicate that the work was not new or cite the previous work.
  3. Falsifying/fabricating/manipulating data. This is by far the most common category of transgressions (see below!), and it includes a wide array of misconduct. Fabrication is “making up data or results and recording or reporting them.” 42 C.F.R. § 93.103(a). 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.” 42 C.F.R. § 93.103(b). It includes situations where the researcher did not do the research at all (a very serious transgression). It also includes situations where the researcher exaggerates the research done, such as by representing that the experiment was repeated 5 times when it was only repeated 3 times. If a researcher manipulates existing data to support a specific result, then it falls within this category.
  4. Authorship issues. This is when a researcher claims authorship of some element of research for herself but does not attribute authorship to others who may have materially assisted in the research. So, for example, submitting an article to a scientific journal and leaving off the name of a contributing author would fit with in this category. (Also, your co-author will not be pleased.)
  5. Validation improprieties. This misconduct usually occurs if a researcher does not provide the data or other materials that would be necessary for a third-party to validate the results of the research. It could also include the failure to retract an article that has been published when the researcher becomes aware of reliable information that the research cannot be validated or is flawed in some other way.
  6. Failure to follow the rules. This category cover situations where the researcher does not follow rules or regulations governing research, such as the limitations and guidelines for using about human or animal test subjects, use of certain drugs and so forth.
  7. Misuse of research funds. This occurs  when a researcher takes the funds that were appropriated for specific research purposes and uses them for another purpose. It could mean that the funds were used for related research (likely a no-no) or for personal use (definite no-no).
  8. Improper behavior related to research misconduct. This category is closest to a criminal charge for obstruction of. justice. It covers conduct such as a researcher’s refusal to cooperate in an investigation, failure to report another researcher’s misconduct, retaliating against someone who reported misconduct, or destroying evidence related to the investigation.

As I mentioned in my first post, Office of Research Integrity publishes newsletters that include a summary of all cases in which administrative action was taken against the researcher. I took a look at the summaries from 2018. Below is a list of all of the types of cases that year:

  1. Falsifying data
  2. Falsifying and/or fabricating data
  3. Falsifying data
  4. Falsifying and/or fabricating data
  5. Falsifying data
  6. Falsifying and/or fabricating data
  7. Falsifying and/or fabricating data
  8. Falsifying data
  9. Falsifying and/or fabricating data
  10. Falsifying data
  11. Falsifying and/or fabricating data
  12. Falsifying and/or fabricating data
  13. Plagiarism
  14. Falsifying data

See any trends here?

It’s clear that the most severe penalties are reserved for falsifying or fabricating data. It’s the broadest category and the most serious misconduct. A perfect storm for investigators.

Keep in mind that the ORI newsletters summarize only the more serious cases, so this list doesn’t cover the most common types of research misconduct to be investigated by universities. Universities investigate the whole range of misconduct against professors and researchers all the time.

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