When investigators are faced with potential research misconduct in published scientific and medical articles, it is generally up to the researchers’ institutions to investigate the allegations. According to a viewpoint article published in JAMA, there are substantial limitations to depending only on institutional investigations of scientific misconduct, including a lack of standardization in misconduct reports and the inherent conflicts of interest these institutions pose.
At present, there are few data regarding an institution’s responses to misconduct by its own members. Generally, most individuals in the scientific community have little access to information regarding claims that do arise or how these claims are successfully handled. According to the authors, a report from the Office of Inspector General of the National Science Foundation demonstrated that some misconduct reports are inconsistent, failing to meet reasonable standards for ascertaining the full extent of the allegation. Additionally, some reports focus on the fault of the individual researcher rather than on the entire research team.
Staff from the Office of Inspector General suggest that many misconduct reports fail to address the intent of the misconduct, blame the student or postdoctoral researchers but fail to interview these individuals, accept excuses by the investigated subjects without question, and rely only on the allegations rather than checking patterns among the investigators. A combination of inexperience, inefficiency, or symptoms of in-group thinking may contribute to the lack of appropriate investigations in misconduct.
A checklist for identifying appropriate steps taken may be important for standardizing investigations of a research misconduct allegation. First, investigations should follow a consistent and well thought out approach that includes appropriate questions to obtain meaningful answers. Second, all individuals involved in researching and reporting the research should be included in the interview process. Third, data should be secured and reviewed by the appropriate experts. Fourth, the journal article should be reviewed to make sure it provides factual data on the topic it is covering. Fifth, the report must be consistent and support its conclusions.
The investigators added that “the scientific community relies on reports of research, and the journals that publish those reports rely on the institutions of investigators to ensure integrity in research.”
Gunsalus CK, Marcus AR, Oransky I. Institutional research misconduct reports need more credibility. JAMA. 2018;319(13):1315-1316.