Research Integrity: Integral to Good Science

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Editor’s note: Integrity is the founding stone of scientific discoveries. Often without which the interwoven and complex structure of research falls apart. It is the need of the hour that the delicate bond of science and community is strengthened with the values of trust and honesty. However, with the boom of technological advancements- the availability of “excess” and sometimes clouded vision of individual benefits in the face of adversity, weakens this bond.

Uma’s first article in this series aims to highlight some of the challenges faced by the scientific community in upholding research integrity and ethics. She carefully dissected out the scientific misconduct and how it threatens society? Our aim here is not to tell you what to think, what to do, or to provide a tailor-made solution to circumvent the problem. However, I hope that Uma’s article will give you a realistic picture of the regulations existing globally and the expectations of inculcating research integrity as a mandatory curriculum. – Rituparna Chakrabarti


 

Arthur Galston, during his graduate years at the University of Illinois, discovered that use of 2,3,5-triiodobenzoic acid substantially increased the number of harvestable soybean pods. This boosted agricultural productivity, but when applied at higher concentrations led to the shedding of leaves and buds, ultimately destroying vegetation. The basis of his discovery became the infamous Agent Orange, a weapon that the USA deployed in full force during the Vietnam War from 1962 onwards. Appalled by the twisted use of his scientific contribution, Galston consistently lobbied towards outlawing the use of Agent Orange as a chemical weapon. He eventually succeeded in convincing President Nixon that defoliants such as Agent Orange be phased out from use.2

Admittedly, most scientists’ day-to-day research dilemmas within the lab do not correlate accurately with this example. But how many can deny having faced some kind of a “To do or not to do” through their research careers? Most scientists, at some point in their careers, face a mental tug-of-war between choosing the correct approach over the practical one. Science & research is certainly not an easy and comfortable career path. To be a successful scientist, it is important to overcome the difficulties associated with designing studies, analysing complex data, presenting research, and interacting fruitfully with peers and public.

If we break down the scientific discipline, it rests on five essential principles (as described in this short video by Neil deGrasse Tyson):

  • To question authority, and not to accept things as facts without evidence
  • To question and think for oneself
  • To test ideas, and accept them as the truth only after rigorous experimentation
  • To follow the evidence as the only guide
  • To accept that one can make mistakes

While doing so, scientists must uphold the values of honesty and integrity in designing experiments and reporting the results. Fairness in dealing with colleagues, openness in accepting opposing viewpoints, and respect for other scientists’ work are an integral part of the process. Pressure to make a position for oneself in a cutthroat work environment, earn name and fame, or a ‘gentle’ push from influential seniors, can make an otherwise law-abiding scientist resort to scientific misconduct.

What is Scientific Misconduct, its Causes, and Repercussions?

Fabrication, falsification of data and plagiarism are considered the “worst” forms of scientific misconduct. Equally questionable are scientific malpractices of failure to maintain confidentiality in peer review, allocation of research credit, amongst others.2

A meta-analysis of surveys that sought information from scientists regarding misconduct revealed that up to 33% of scientists admitted to using questionable research practices, while 72% admitted to questionable practices on the parts of their colleagues.3

The causes of research misconduct can be manifold and can be classified into five main groups4:

  • Individual traits (ego, vanity)
  • Circumstances (financial, personal reasons)
  • Organisational factors (complex interpersonal relationships at the workplace, inadequate mentoring)
  • Structural elements (like ‘publish-or-perish’ culture)
  • Cultural factors (difference in understanding what constitutes good scientific practice)

When a scientist shows a lack of professional ethics, it is the entire society that suffers as a result. There is considerable loss of time and resources, hindering the advancement of human knowledge. On a personal front, scientific misconduct could permanently damage the scientist’s reputation. Thus scientists not only have an obligation to themselves and to the research fraternity who build on previous findings, but also to the society, which funds their research.2

In response to several cases of research and medical malpractices in the past, the research community globally came up with several measures. In the interest of the brevity, we highlight a few notable ones here.

What Are the Regulations and Regulatory Bodies in Research?

At the end of the Second World War, as an outcome of the many unethical experiments on human subjects during the war, one of the first documents to codify responsible conduct in research was drafted in 1947. The Nuremberg Code laid down a set of research ethics principles on human experimentation. This was followed by the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki, which was the first significant effort by the medical community to regulate research on human subjects.

In 1981, shaken by four prominent cases of alleged fraud in the USA concerning fabrication, falsification of data and plagiarism, research misconduct became an intense topic of discussion in the US Congress5. Increasing public attention to cases of research misconduct led to the creation of the Office of Scientific Integrity in the USA in 1989. Today, as the Office of Research Integrity, it ensures institutional compliance with research integrity, carries out inquiries into allegations of research misconduct and investigations. Its recommendations to deal with scientific misconduct are

  • to adopt a zero tolerance to unethical behaviour in research
  • to protect the whistleblowers
  • to clarify the reporting of misconduct
  • to train mentors and to set up a model for ethical behaviour in research

In Europe, Denmark took the lead in establishing institutions dedicated to ensuring integrity in research, with the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty founded under the aegis of the Danish Ministry of Higher Education and Science, in 1992, initially on a trial basis. Recently, since July 1, 2017, the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty have been replaced by the Danish Committee on Research Misconduct.

In 1997, a major scandal involving two biomedical researchers came to light in Germany. A 4-month inquiry panel consisting of scientists and legal experts came to the conclusion that the two researchers had manipulated or falsified data “to an unprecedented extent”, over an extended period from 1988 to 1996. It was found that data in at least 37 papers published by the duo were questionable6. Thoroughly disturbed by this scandal, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), the government agency responsible for funding academic research in Germany, established a panel of scientists and experts to publish ‘Safeguarding Good Scientific Practice’, a white paper on integrity in scientific research. It made 10 recommendations to prevent scientific dishonesty, directing them primarily to scientific institutions and also to all individual scientists.

In India, scientific wrongdoings are on the rise as well. In 2011, at the Workshop on Scientific Ethics in Chennai, Prof. T.A. Abinandanan, affiliated to the Indian Institute of Science, presented his findings on the rate of scientific misconduct in India. He reported that 44 articles per 100,000 published were retracted due to scientific misconduct (mainly plagiarism) in the decade of 2001-2010. Sadly, this was higher than the world average withdrawals of about 17 (due to both misconduct and genuine errors)7. Very often, Indian researchers who indulge in scientific malpractice are novice regarding the code of ethical conduct in research, especially when it comes to sharing or presenting their work. In addition, insufficient training (e.g. data management, writing skills) can also play a pivotal role in inadvertently turning them towards plagiarism. To circumvent this loophole, the Society for Scientific Values was established by a group of scientists in 1986, led by Prof. Avtar Paintal. So far, this is the only independent ethics body that acts as a watchdog upholding research integrity in India. The lack of a statutory body to deal with alleged cases pushes individual institutions to take action on an ad hoc basis. This manifests in the absence of a uniform code and appropriate responses toward research misconduct in India. However, the lack of consistent outline is a worldwide phenomenon challenging research fraternity.

The World Conferences on Research Integrity stemmed from the lack of gold standard definition of research integrity and overarching regulations. They aim to achieve a consensus to deal with unethical research practices. At the Second Conference on Research Integrity in 2010, the Singapore Statement on Research Integrity was developed, wherein 4 principles for scientific integrity were laid out:

  • Honesty in all aspects of research
  • Accountability in the conduct of research
  • Professional courtesy and fairness in working with others
  • Good stewardship of research on behalf of others

Additionally, responsibilities of researchers were laid out, including integrity, adherence to regulations in different aspects of research, authorship guidelines, reporting research misconduct, and societal considerations.

Why is Research Integrity Training the ‘Need of the Hour’?

In 2009, a good scientific practice curriculum was developed by the “Ombudsman for Research” in Germany, targeting doctoral students. The feedback from students, post training, highlighted the fact that more than half of the students had experienced research misconduct that had a bearing on their work. Also, a staggering 1 in 5 doctoral students (76/387 students) had been involved in at least one form of severe scientific misconduct, including plagiarism, data manipulation, fabrication or theft, honorary authorship, and duplicate publication. The authors of this study speculated, following this course, that students had gained a clearer understanding regarding what constitutes scientific misconduct, and hence could admit to the widespread scientific malpractices in their work environment. This study also threw light on the fact that training in this subject was sorely lacking, also at the supervisor level.8

Therefore, it is important to include such curriculum as a mandatory subject right from the under-graduation and graduation levels. This will help individuals to identify the problem firstly, and then take the required steps to overcome it.

Conclusion

In the end, we would like to summarise with an excerpt from the white paper published by the DFG in 1998, for you to ponder upon:

“Every case that occurs is one case too many. For dishonesty – in contrast to error – not only fundamentally contradicts the principles and the essence of scientific work, [but] it is also a grave danger to science itself. It can undermine public confidence in science, and it may destroy the confidence of scientists in each other without which successful scientific work is impossible.”

The courage and confidence that Galston showed in pursuing the consequences of his research are indeed remarkable and inspiring. However, this conviction can only be achieved from a strong sense of research ethics, morals and dedication to upholding all the good science stands for. As Galston quoted, [the] responsibility [of a scientist] to society does not cease with publication of a definitive scientific paper.

Sound knowledge of and adherence to research integrity are imperative if we are to leave a positive imprint on humanity with our work.

In our following articles in this series, we shall see in greater detail what constitutes scientific malpractice and misconduct, conscious ways a researcher can remove themselves from involvement in such practices, regulations about authorship and publications, and conflict management when faced with research misconduct.

 


References

  1. Galston Science and social responsibility: A case history. Ann NY Acad Sci. 1972;196(4):223-35.
  2. National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. On Being a Scientist: A Guide to Responsible Conduct in Research: Third Edition. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2009.
  3. Fanelli How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Survey Data. PLoS One. 2009;4(5):e5738.
  4. Davis MS, Riske-Morris M, Diaz SR. Causal Factors Implicated in Research Misconduct: Evidence from ORI Case Files. Sci and Eng Ethics. 2007;13(4):395-414.
  5. Gold 6, Congressional Activities Regarding Misconduct and Integrity in Science. In: National Academy of Sciences (US), National Academy of Engineering (US) and Institute of Medicine (US) Panel on Scientific Responsibility and the Conduct of Research. Responsible Science: Ensuring the Integrity of the Research Process: Volume II. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1993.
  6. Koenig Panel Calls Falsification in German Case ‘Unprecedented’. Science. 1997;277(5328):894.
  7. Abinandanan Scientific Misconduct in India: An Analysis of Retracted Papers in PubMed. Abstract of a talk presented at the Workshop on Academic Ethics. 2011 Jul 15-16; Chennai (India). http://www.imsc.res.in/~ethicsmeet/abstracts/abinandanan.html
  8. Gommel M, Nolte H, Sponholz G. Teaching Good Scientific Practice: Results from a Survey and Observations from Two Hundred Courses. JUnQ. 2015;5(2):11-16.

Contributions

Primary author and content research

Uma Turakhiya, currently works as a regulatory medical writer at Trilogy Writing and Consulting (Frankfurt, Germany), having previously completed her Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Freiburg, Germany. She enjoys writing about science and believes that simplification of science and communication are the key to creating a scientific temper in the society. Apart from having a voracious appetite for books, she is enthusiastic about learning new languages, meeting new people and occasionally playing the piano.

 

Primary editor, contributed to the research, infographics and blog design

Rituparna Chakrabarti, pursued her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Georg-August University (Göttingen, Germany) and is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Biostructural Imaging of Neurodegeneration (BIN), Göttingen. Over the years, she has gained technical expertise in electron and high-resolution light microscopy, to study the nanostructures of specialized chemical synapses in the sensory systems. She likes to have a bird’s eye view of her undertakings and gets excited with analytics. Passionately believes in, correct simplification of science, therefore engages in different scientific communication and public outreach projects. To unwind herself she plays mandolin and eagerly looks for a corner at a coffee house to slide herself in with a good read or company.

2ndeditor

Paurvi Shinde, did her PhD, in Immunology from University of Connecticut Health and currently works as a Post Doc, at Bloodworks Northwest in Seattle. She’s loves editing and proofreading scientific articles, to convey the message behind it, in a clear and concise form.

 

 

Our art team

  1. Cover image: Kindly provided by Vinita Bharat Ph.D. Follow her on Fuzzy Synapse (on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram).
  2. Inset image: Courtesy of Ipsa Jain. You can find more about her works at IpsaWonders (on Facebook and Instagram)

 

 


The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs). This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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