Scientific misconduct and how to prevent it

Introduction

Research integrity requires honesty in presenting goals and intentions, in reporting methods and procedures and in conveying interpretations. Research must be reliable and its communication fair and full. Objectivity requires facts capable of proof, and transparency in the handling of data. Researchers should be independent and impartial and communication with other researchers and with the public should be open and honest. All researchers have a duty of care for the humans, animals, the environment or the objects that they study. They must show fairness in providing references and giving credit for the work of others and must show responsibility for future generations in their supervision of young scientists and scholars. European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity, 2011.

The basic premise for scientific research is indeed honesty. Or, as Schuyt puts it most simply: ‘Do not lie, do not steal.’ Yet, unfortunately, scientific misconduct does occur. Scientific misconduct has large negative consequences, firstly for science itself. Results have to be trustworthy for science to have the possibility to advance our knowledge. Similarly, scientific misconduct has negative consequences for its users, patients and society. They have to be able to trust the methods followed and the results obtained. Especially in biomedical research, misconduct may result in damage to patients’ health and to healthcare in general. Also, fellow researchers need to be certain of the absence of misconduct, as misconduct would render impossible both cooperation and progress. Likewise, institutions must be sure that the research conducted in their name is trustworthy. They must be able to present an image that is worthy of support and grants. Finally, for individual researchers there are enormous risks connected to committing fraud. Even though in the short run their embellished output and increased funding may have advantages, the long-term consequences can be disastrous, as was recently shown by several cases of misconduct in, for example, the Netherlands.

At the same time, independence in research is under growing pressure as a result of external factors: the increasing need to publish and the researchers’ dependence on external funding. Individual researchers may also be driven by internal factors such as a desire to be the first and to produce positive results. This may make them overlook the need to be careful and to respect the process and the time needed to conduct good studies. Therefore, in this chapter we more extensively explain the general principles of what scientific misconduct entails and what can be done to prevent it.

Research misconduct may appear in many guises. The major forms of misconduct are:

  1. Fabrication – making up results and recording them as though they were real.
  2. Falsification – manipulating research processes or changing or omitting data.
  3. Plagiarism – appropriating other people’s material without giving proper credit.

Other forms of misconduct include:

  • Failure to meet clear ethical and legal requirements, such as misrepresentation of interests, breach of confidentiality, lack of informed consent and abuse of research subjects or materials.
  • Improper dealing with infringements, such as attempts to cover up misconduct and reprisals on whistle-blowers.

More specifically, Dutch Universities (VSNU, 2012) have stated in their Code of Conduct for Scientific Practice that scientific misconduct extends at least to the following:

  1. Falsifying data
  2. Entering fictional data
  3. Secretly omitting unfavourable results
  4. Deliberately misusing statistical methods to achieve conclusions other than those justified by the data
  5. Deliberately interpreting results and conclusions falsely
  6. Plagiarizing results or other authors’ publications
  7. Pretending to be an author or co-author
  8. Deliberately ignoring or not recognizing the contribution of other authors
  9. Failing to exercise due care when conducting research.

Dishonesty or a lack of integrity can pertain to the research itself, to the dissemination of scientific findings by publication (including reports, applications and articles), to reviewing, and to applications for funding and jobs. Scientific misconduct can relate to all stages of research.

References & Further reading