Establishing a policy for implementing Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) is an important way to educate academic researchers about the standards with which we expect them to comply in their scholarly research endeavors. The convention and norms of the research community, as established by the NSF, NIH and other entities alike, typically entrust a Principal Investigator (PI) as the trustee and executor of a funded research project.
Aside from the off-chance that a funding agency becomes aware of unethical research procedures, inappropriate research expenditures and/or illegal research activities that constitute an evidential violation of the normative RCR practice, the PI is free to administer the research project and allocate the financial resources of the research grant with modifications. Post-award modifications could range from minor tweaks to major changes, as permitted by the funding agencies. Short of engaging in the aforementioned research misconduct, what could possibly constitute an untenable behavior – one that seemingly leaves the otherwise well-intentioned institutional research administrators powerless or ill-equipped to rectify? A hypothetical scenario, falling outside of the normative practice of RCR, is provided below.
Let’s assume that a grant proposal was submitted to a federal agency, seeking the opportunity to establish a “center of excellence” in a specific research discipline. The center grant application contained two components: (1) a proposal that details the organizational and administrative structure of the center, which includes the center’s mission (e.g., advancing innovative research), activities (e.g., program coordination and outreach), personnel (e.g., internal and external advisory committees), etc., and (2) two original research proposals that justify the creation and contributions of the center as a research entity.
The PI, selected by an existing Research Center on a university campus, was responsible for preparing the proposal that describes the center’s organizational and administrative structure. A team of researchers was invited by the Research Center and divided into two groups to generate two separate original research proposals. The presumed center-PI, who was in charge of submitting the complete set of application materials, entered his/her name as the PI for one of the original research proposals (written by a tenured faculty and a clinical researcher from the presumed center-PI’s home institution) and registered himself/herself as a co-investigator for the other original research proposal (written by an externally affiliated research institution). The center grant proposals successfully competed for funding.
Subsequent to receiving the center-grant funding, the center-PI began to systematically devalue the contributions of the two co-PI’s from the home institution; these two co-PI’s wrote the original research proposal but were stripped of the opportunity to serve as the project-PI, when the center PI self-designated as the project-PI at the time of proposal submission. The center-PI (and the self-designated project-PI) also declined to honor these two co-PIs’ time and efforts, as they appeared in the project budget. One of the co-investigators on the same project quickly dropped out of the project and later resigned from the university, after his/her role was greatly diminished by the center/project PI. This co-investigator was the individual who engineered the relations between the proposed center and other existing research, academic, and administrative units of the applicant institution for collaboration on sampling, data collection and outcome evaluation.
It should be noted that the center-PI provided annual reports to the funding agency as per usual, even though the center-PI diverted a large amount of grant funding for other uses. In light of this unfortunate circumstance, one of the co-PI’s (the tenured faculty), raised the concern associated with the lack of compensation for time and efforts (but not the diversion of research funds) with the relevant administrators at the university. This faculty co-PI received two types of responses. One entailed the answer “it is the PI’s prerogative to determine how the grant funding will be dispensed.” The other lambasted the faculty co-PI’s story as being defamatory. In sum, during the five-year period when the center grant was funded, the center-PI systematically stole the intellectual property right of the two co-PI’s, failed to properly compensate their time and efforts, and ultimately excluded them from accessing the research data at the conclusion of the project period.
The hypothetical scenario of “stealing authorship credit” provided above is nothing new, although combined with a twist related to the PI’s failure to compensate the authors’ time and efforts. If a situation like this one occurred at your institution, what would you have done or what could have been done? Should your institution intervene in this case on behalf of the two co-PI’s by demanding that the PI cease the predatory behavior and compensate the co-PI’s for their time and efforts accordingly? What advice would your institution provide for the PI and the co-PI’s regarding how to move forward with their research project? How could your institution prevent the PI from reducing or removing the co-PIs’ involvement with the project in the future? Should the PI receive some kind of reprimand or penalty? If so, what might the reprimand or penalty be and who should implement such remedies? Moreover, what policies or guidelines for monitoring grant administration, if any, should be developed to guard against this type of research misconduct?
Above and beyond the potential actions that the university officials could adopt to remedy this hypothetical scenario, should the funding agency also bear some of the responsibility in reviewing and evaluating the annual reports submitted by the PI more carefully? Would it be a good idea for the major grant program officer(s) from the funding agency to interview the key research personnel, in addition to the PI periodically, to validate the progress reports and compliance with responsible research conduct? This scenario presents many complex questions about the roles and responsibilities of various individuals and institutions. I welcome perspectives from inside and outside the graduate school on this important issue.
Associate Dean of the Graduate School
University of Connecticut