Ethics Blog Post

When I was looking through the misconduct cases on the Office of Research Integrity’s (ORI) website, I decided to Google a few of the researcher’s names because the medical jargon and detailed descriptions weren’t resonating with me. After a few searches, I soon discovered one of the largest federal False Claims Acts lawsuits (an individual files a claim against an entity for defrauding the federal government) ever to focus on research misconduct in academia, which involved Duke University and Erin Potts-Kant.  The ORI’s case was from 2019 and based on the report of an investigation from Duke University School of Medicine, admission from Erin and additional analysis from their team. They found that she had falsified and fabricated data mice reactions to pollutants in 117 figures and 2 tables in 32 publications and 2 manuscripts. But this Google search revealed so much more than what the ORI case file detailed…

Research Misconduct Case

The article titled Deceit at Duke explains the whole story in-depth, but I will try to summarize the main points here. Erin started working in Dr. William Michael Foster’s lab in 2006 as a lab technician, but soon was promoted to the lab’s clinical research coordinator because she “had a knack for routinely delivering data sought by researchers.” From 2012-2013, a researcher named Joe Thomas began working in the lab with Erin and began to doubt the integrity of her research. He suspected she was doctoring her data, so that it fit with expected hypotheses, and the lab could use this data to justify additional grant funding from the National Institute of Health (NIH). When he voiced his suspicions, he felt that his superiors weren’t listening to his concerns due to the pressure they were facing from the university to receive more funding from the NIH. The timeline below outlines the main events that occurred and the legal proceedings, which started in 2014 but weren’t fully resolved until 2019 when Duke agreed to pay 112.5 million in reimbursement penalties from the funding they received using Erin’s falsified data.

During all of this, Duke said that they had no idea that this was going on, and they weren’t trying to cover anything up, but Joe Thomas thinks that is unlikely. In an earlier research misconduct case, a lawsuit filed against Duke alleged that if staff spoke out about the misconduct, they could face legal action from the University. Based on this earlier case and how his superiors reacted, Joe Thomas is concerned that all would have been “swept under the rug” if he hadn’t taken outside legal action. From both examples, it seems as if Duke didn’t take the accusations seriously because they didn’t want to tarnish their reputation.

Promoting Transparency in Research Misconduct Investigations

This raises a big question in my mind- if universities are the first point of contact to investigate research misconduct, how can we trust their investigations if they have a vested interest in keeping their reputation intact? An additional element that raises some red flags about the legitimacy of university-led investigations is the lack of disclosure around their findings. In an article in Nature, a former research integrity officer discusses this very point, arguing that concealing research misconduct reports are promoting distrust and perpetuating this misbehavior. To follow the movement for enhancing transparency in science, the author supports publicizing research misconduct reports once they are completed, so that institutions could learn from each other, researchers could better understand the conduct that leads to investigations and leaders might pay more attention if reports are subject to scrutiny. There would be concerns around confidentiality for those involved other than the perpetrator, but I firmly agree with the author’s suggestion.

ORI and the National Science Foundation (NSF) currently publicize the results of research misconduct cases, but these investigations only occur if the research misconduct happened using funds from those agencies. NSF also doesn’t disclose the names of researchers involved. The cases investigated by these agencies are only a small chunk of the research misconduct happening inside academia. A study by Titus et al. (2008) concluded that the majority of misconduct cases aren’t even reported. Universities and colleges SHOULD notify journals if they find data has been fabricated/falsified and published in their journal, but they have no legal requirement to do so (National Academy of Sciences, 2017). Many publications with falsified data may then never get retracted, and other researchers unknowingly continue treating fabricated data and results as fact to support their own findings. I also can’t help but think about unsuspecting graduate or undergraduate students who may never know about their new advisor’s misconduct until they start working with them. And the cycle just continues…

In addition to the issues from concealing research misconduct findings, Gunsalus et al. (2018) also raise concerns about the quality of misconduct investigation and the lack of standards in how higher education institutions conduct these. In their viewpoint article, Gunsalus et al. (2018) list several shortcomings of current investigative reports, which include:

  • “Investigative reports that lack supporting evidence and fail to address the elements of a research misconduct finding, particularly intent
  • Individuals who are the subjects of the investigation blaming the student or postdoctoral researchers, but the investigative committee never interviewing these individuals
  • Accepting, without question, excuses by the subjects of the investigation
  • Relying only on information in allegations, not checking for patterns or other misconduct”

The authors proposed a checklist for research integrity investigations to ensure that investigations are following reasonable standards, which can be found here.

Conclusion

ORI and NSF promote integrity and transparency in their fields by publicizing research misconduct cases involving their grantees. However, much of research misconduct within academia is only investigated by the universities/colleges, which are concealed and follow institution-specific practices of varying quality. Making misconduct reports public and ensuring higher education institutions follow standardized criteria/practices for their investigations could promote transparency, enhance trust in the investigations and discourage this endless cycle of research misconduct.

References

Gunalus, C. K. (2019, June 3). Make reports of research misconduct public. Nature. Retrieved from: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01728-z

Gunsalus, C. K., Marcus, A. R., & Oransky, I. (2018). Institutional research misconduct reports need more credibility. Jama, 319(13), 1315-1316.

Martin, E. (2019, August 1). Deceit at Duke: How fraud at a university research lab prompted a $112M fine. Business NC. Retrieved from: https://businessnc.com/deceit-at-duke-how-fraud-at-a-university-research-lab-prompted-a-112m-fine/

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2017). Fostering integrity in research. National Academies Press.

Office of Research Integrity (ORI). (2019). Case Summary: Potts Kant, Erin N. Retrieved from: https://ori.hhs.gov/content/case-summary-potts-kant-erin-n

Titus, S. L., Wells, J. A., & Rhoades, L. J. (2008). Repairing research integrity. Nature, 453(7198), 980-982. https://ori.hhs.gov/content/case-summary-potts-kant-erin-n