Broken Moral Compass: A Case Study On Research Misconduct


Ethics, morality and proper research conduct go hand-in-hand. In the modern times, ethics are an integral part of any field of study as lack of ethics would create a chaos, making it difficult to safeguard the rights of the researchers and in some cases their subject as wells. Through this blog I would like to walk you through answering the following questions:

  1.  What are Ethics and Morals?
  2.  What is Research Misconduct?
  3.  What are the Consequences of Research Misconduct?
  4.  Case Study of Research Misconduct.


1. What are Ethics and Morals?

According to the McCombs School of Business,

The term ethics often describes the investigation and analysis of moral principles and dilemmas. Traditionally, philosophers and religious scholars have studied ethics. More recently, scholars from various disciplines have entered the field, creating new approaches to the study of ethics such as behavioral ethics and applied ethics.

The term ethics can also refer to rules or guidelines that establish what conduct is right and wrong for individuals and for groups. For example, codes of conduct express relevant ethical standards for professionals in many fields, such as medicine, law, journalism, and accounting.

Some philosophers make a distinction between ethics and morals. But many people use the terms ethics and morals interchangeably when talking about personal beliefs, actions, or principles. For example, it’s common to say, “My ethics prevent me from cheating.” It’s also common to use morals in this sentence instead.

So, whether we use the term ethics to refer to personal beliefs, or rules of conduct, or the study of moral philosophy, ethics provides a framework for understanding and interpreting right and wrong in society.

From the above discussion on ethics and morals, we may not be clear about the distinction between the two but we definitely know that they point to the same goal of being true to the vision of equality and integrity in all walks of life. Research or scientific experimentation is no different, they follow the highest standard of ethical conduct since their end goal is to give back to the society. In some cases researchers fall short of ethical behavior while conducting research and that leads us to our next question.


2. What is Research Misconduct?

According to The Office of Research Integrity(ORI), US Department of Health and Human Services(HHS),

Research misconduct means fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results.

(a) Fabrication is making up data or results and recording or reporting them.

(b) 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.

(c) Plagiarism is the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit.

(d) Research misconduct does not include honest error or differences of opinion.

The above definition clearly states the differences between intentional fabrication, falsification and plagiarism vs an honest error in terms of admissibility as an evidence for research misconduct. Fabrication, falsification and plagiarism are the three pillars that may seem alluring but you definitely do not want the to be supporting the structure of your research.


3. What are the Consequences of Research Misconduct?

The consequences of research misconduct can be disastrous, as it taints the reputation of the individual and the organization as well. The retraction notice on the paper will haunt the researcher for years and the organization may not be ready to bear the consequences of such misconduct. The videos below explain the point of view of a publishing organization with respect to the researcher and the society as a whole:

What are the consequences of scientific misconduct to you personally?


What are the consequences of scientific misconduct to you (the author), your institution and the research community?


Also, the monetary losses related to the research are huge because, all the money and effort that went into the research goes down the drain followed by lack of funding for future project due to loss of trust between the research organization and the organization funding the research.

To mitigate research misconduct, students and researchers must be trained in appropriate research conduct. Most universities have their own training programs and checks in place to avoid research misconduct but at the end of the day, it lies in the hands of the researcher to ethically implement the best practices and avoid misconduct.

The Lab: Avoiding Research Misconduct” and “The Research Clinic” are two interactive resources for training by ORI to portray the best research practices and how to avoid misconduct.

4. Case Study of Research Misconduct.



As a case study, I would like to take into account the findings by ORI on Fulford, Logan. Before I start with analyzing the case summary, I would like to state that I am no expert in the field in which the misconduct occurred and my views are solely based on the findings by ORI.

The case summary has a very technical format, starting with the identity of the researcher involved, their initial statement on the accusations, a brief list of areas of research where misconduct occurred followed by an expanded version of the accusations and the steps taken to discipline the researcher.

The identity description of the researcher involved with the misconduct is a very comprehensive one, stating all previous and current affiliations. In my opinion, the need for such a detailed description is for proper identification of the researcher, setting the distinction from other researchers with similar credentials. Followed by this, the admission of misconduct is stated by ORI as:

Respondent neither admits nor denies ORI’s findings of research misconduct; this settlement is not an admission of liability on the part of the Respondent. The parties entered into a Voluntary Settlement Agreement (Agreement) to conclude this matter without further expenditure of time, finances, or other resources.

This seems to be a legal statement from the researcher being reported by ORI to briefly summarize the outcome of the case where the researcher neither admits nor denies the claims against their research. Followed by this, ORI briefly describes two major areas of possible misconduct, specifically targeting the specific instances of misconduct. This a broad level description of what actually happened and is very helpful for the reader to understand the cause of the probe.

The case summary moves on to describe the technicalities and the exact instances of misconduct, explaining how those instances classify as misconduct. Even though some basic aspects of the accusations can be understood but this particular section does require some technical expertise to totally understand the dynamics of the misconduct.

Once the findings of misconduct are listed, the case summary moves on to disclosing the arrangements made between ORI and the researcher/research organization to discipline the researcher and prevent future misconduct. The final arrangements vary case-by-case in their severity and in my opinion the steps taken in this particular case were not extreme providing the researcher a second chance, but under strict supervision.

In the end, I would like to conclude that a broken moral compass can lead a researcher to adverse consequences and it is very important to keep your moral compass pointed in the right direction of equality and integrity while conducting responsible research.

One Reply to “Broken Moral Compass: A Case Study On Research Misconduct”

  1. Hi Sahil,
    Thanks for sharing this post! I really appreciate how you situated the case analysis within the foundations of ethics v. morality, formal definition of research misconduct, and typical consequences of such professional misbehavior. The first of these three reminded me of debates in philosophy on ethics (e.g. Kant, Nietzsche) as universal, subjective, context-specific, etc. Far from abstract, these debates become very concrete in the context of specific cases of purported misconduct and the myriad variables involved. Since one’s moral compass is mutable (fortunately), I’m curious about what you think are the most effective levers/influences to ensure researchers adhere to unimpeachably ethical standards. Thanks for this!

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