Ethics: Voluntary Settlement Agreements and Punishment

Does admitting and accepting responsibility for research misconduct take away some of the heat on the hot seat? Short answer: yes. While taking the route of admittance does present some risk factors, such as earlier than expected investigations, it does allow for a reduced sentence.
This is the case of Maria Cristina Miron Elqutub, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. In short, Ms. Maria Cristina Miron Elqutub engaged in research misconduct by “knowingly and intentionally falsifying data” within two published papers and two grant reports. The data she falsified were that of 98 human blood samples for cancer research. She swapped her own blood samples in place of these 98 human subjects originally used for the research. Maria fully cooperated with both the ORI and entered into a Voluntary Settlement Agreement and by her own discretion agreed to have her research supervised for period of three years, that in those three years any institution employing her must submit a certification of proof of her works validity and that she has not engaged in any process dealing with funding requests from the PHS, to voluntarily exclude herself from serving in an advisory role to PHS, and lastly, to follow up with falsified journals to make sure all work has been redacted and corrected.
Does the punishment seem fair, especially in comparison to those who did not admit and chose to follow proceedings? Accepting responsibility allowed Elqutub to receive a lessened punishment, which seemed to be the same in most other VSA cases. She may even get the humble pat on the back from colleagues about how honest she’s being. However, agreeing to a voluntary settlement agreement shouldn’t make what you did seem like it had less of an impact on both the research and everyone associated with that research. Not only does Elqutub’s reputation become discredited and tarnished, so does the Anderson Cancer Center. These redacted or corrected articles were in major national cancer published magazines, seen by anyone who picked it up. The trust of that center is lost, and all she gets a future supervision. Her overwhelming need to get the results, or whatever drove her to make the decision she did, resulted in a diminished view of a valuable cancer research center and will affect the applicability of future grants, future research, and future voluntary participation in testing from the public. A harsher punishment should have been imposed.

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