Data manipulation in Research: Is it worth the risk?

Ever wondered what would happen if you decide to tweak data to fit expectations? Well, the outcome would be anything but pretty, assuming you get caught. Being found guilty of manipulating data has dire consequences which range from loss of researcher’s credibility to retraction of research from journal publications. You might ask, “does this really happen?”

Yes, it does. A good example would be the case of David Anderson, a graduate student at the University of Oregon, Eugene. The Office of Research Integrity opened David’s case in the year 2015. The Office of Research Integrity had found that David “knowingly falsified data by removing outlier values or replacing outliers with mean values to produce results that conform to predictions.” David who had published the findings of the said research in four journals would lose all the publications that reported the doctored findings. The Office of Research Integrity had mandated the editors of the journals to retract David’s research from their journal publications. Not only that, David was then placed under strict supervision regarding subsequent research. This also has negative implications for the credibility of research that comes from the laboratory that David works for. Moreover, because labs survive on grants, this unfortunate discovery might negatively impact their ability to secure grants in the future. If you are close to the workings of academia, you would know that all these are really bad news, to say the least.

Having said all these, another big question you might have is: why would anybody want to falsify data or results in the first place? Well, the reasons are not far-fetched. We live in a world of evidence. Fund granting organizations, the government, the Senate, and the United States public at large wants evidence. These funding agencies most of the time need “the desired result” to continue to fund a project. If results are not in sync with predictions, it might make them cut funds. On the other end, researchers need funds to keep their labs open and running. There comes the “researcher’s curse”, dilemma of choosing between integrity or keeping their lab running (or research funded). Unfortunately, some people succumb to this pressure and choose the former; David happens to be one of those. The aim of this blog is definitely not to shame David, while admitting that the act is shameful, however, this blog is trying to enlighten other researchers about how tantalizing it could be to succumb to these pressures. In addition, this blog also speaks to funding agencies. It is my hope that funding agencies would alleviate these pressures by accepting as important, results that do not align with predictions; only then would we begin to see more integrity in research.

dougle20

I read this case study as well, and it seems to follow a similar pattern of most of the misconduct cases presented on the ORI website. Someone fabricated results in an effort to continue forward. I like how you touched on why someone would do this. I think having some reasoning explains why someone would attempt to jeopardize their career. I recently wrote my blog in regards to why punishment isn’t as severe as maybe I believe it should be. I mentioned how, as researchers, our goal is to learn and grow the field in which we are studying, and that anyone who fabricates data is ultimately embodying the complete opposite of that. Many of the punishments that I read were a combination of probation, limited-to-no advisory leadership role availability, and required research proposal plan review by ORI. In my eyes, I felt that this just doesn’t justify someone who actively altered results in order to benefit themselves. However, after reading your post, I have been enlightened that maybe researchers do this from pressure of outside sources, and while they still have a moral obligation to make ethical decisions, one could be, for a lack of better terms, a “rock in a hard place” and not know what to do. While I don’t justify the falsification of data, it begs the question of how much blame is provided to the fabricator, versus blame to the coercer (e.g., advisor, institution, etc.).

Great post!

damochi7

Dougle20,
I share the same sentiment. I think punishments should be more severe than what we currently have. I’m glad my post helped you see the other ‘less talked about’ side of this issue. Cheers!

Dami

Sam Shehata

Hey Dami, Interesting blog title.

You bring up a good point towards the end of your blog. You ask yourself this, should you publish manipulated data just to please your sponsors, or should you maintain personal and professional integrity in these situations ? For some people, what a dilemma it is I must say, but if you choose the green side early on in your research career, you’ve built yourself a strong foundation for ethical behavior that will sustain the test of time.

If I was in that Dilemma, I’d risk the fund, justify why my lab results didn’t come out as predicted, and just be true to myself. If you cheat yourself now, you’ll never acquire any genuine self fulfillment in the future.

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