Ethics: Consequences of Misconduct in Academic Research

This week I reviewed a case summary submitted by the Department of Health and Human Services that addressed the research misconduct of Anil Potti, M.D., Duke University School of Medicine. The case is from 2015 and is made available by The Office of Research Integrity (ORI) on their website. First, I must say that I was surprised the name of the accused is made public, but also understandable for a field trying to maintain integrity to publicly condemn or denounce those who would threaten the reputation of the field and tarnish the work of other doctors who are operating with integrity. As Dr. Potti was affiliated with Duke University, the university would be that much more compelled to disassociate from Dr. Potti to maintain their reputation and relationship with stakeholders. Secondly, the number of offenses by Dr. Potti is far beyond egregious and was blatantly executed—a minimum of 12 instances of misconduct.

Dr. Potti was found to have reported false research data pursuant to multiple grants from national health organizations. Last week, 9/28/2020, in class we discussed the various positions held within an educational institution and the prerequisites required to obtain said positions. For an associate professor to receive a promotion to a full professor there must be evidence of a stellar record of scholarly productivity and mentor graduate students as well as receiving grant awards with significantly high dollar values (possibly in the millions). I am imagining Dr. Potti’s willingness to engage in dishonesty would be in part to benefit from the accolades associated with winning grants that eventually lead to career advancement.

All publications that Dr. Potti authored or included false data were retracted from the publications. With this information noted in the report, my perspective is broadened about the collateral damage of Dr. Potti’s misconduct. For example, there could be a number of students, educators, and doctors in the field who referenced information from these published works to inform concepts they’re applying in the classroom or industry. The ORI report does not indicate the impact of the misconduct on Dr. Potti’s position as a Duke Associate Professor, but Dr. Potti agreed to specific terms regarding future employment and research:

  1. Supervised research for five years
  2. Submit a plan for supervised duties to ORI as it relates to U.S. Public Health Service (PHS)-supported research.
  3. Submit certification by an institution that Dr. Potti’s research data aligns with conducted experiments/accurate reporting
  4. Refrain from holding advisory roles with PHS

All in all, I cannot assess if the punishment for reporting false research data fits the multiple impacts on other students and researchers in the field. I may be too harsh, but I disagree with Dr. Potti having future opportunities to conduct research and apply for grants. The road to associate professor is long when we look at the culminating academic activities required to achieve such a position. During the academic journey, we learn about ethical behavior and teach it to our students. When we engage in such conduct, particularly at this stage in our career, we know better. As I stated earlier, I am unsure about the impact on Dr. Potti’s career at Duke, but employment termination would be an appropriate response to such an act. I was not aware of the ORI prior to this course, but I am disinterested in any thought that might compel me to falsify research data. I will stay focused and vigilant as I move forward in operating in research practices to operate with integrity

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