Moral Kombat

Good evening folks! Hope your day was as great as mine!

Today I’d like to talk about an area that is near and dear to my heart: morals and ethics. Sounds like a strange thing to be passionate about, but hear me out.

I work in the field of food science and technology with a focus on functional foods and human health. Suppose I come out with an amazing new study claiming that I can use one of the compounds found in coffee grounds to reduce risk of heart attack by 40%, and I have all the figures, data, and statistics to back this claim. Now lets say that I…tweaked some of my results to be a bit more favorable to my conclusions. Nothing too major, just changing a few numbers to give me a little more statistical significance, maybe i took out some of my low values. No big deal, right? I mean after all, its for the greater good of improving human health? Well that may help me sleep at night, but falsifying data is a serious offense that falls into the category of research misconduct, a major taboo in the scientific community.

Research misconduct is not only illegal, but could also be dangerous in certain fields such as the human health sector. By falsifying results that could eventually get published and cited in other experiments, you could be playing a role in the creation of a new drug or medicine that may not actually work, or even be detrimental to the public’s health! Because of these staggering consequences, organizations such as the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) oversee and monitor research integrity activities within the U.S. Public Health Service on behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services. The ORI provides documentation of research misconduct cases to the public as both a reminder of the potential consequences and to serve as an example for anyone in a lab who may want to report an instance of research misconduct. 

I went onto the ORI site and pulled an article that I think illustrates my point, which you can check out here.

From the reading, we learn that Matthew is actually a graduate student, not unlike myself. More than likely, he was trying to get a manuscript published, a very important factor when pursuing a post-secondary degree. Unfortunately, Matthew decided to falsify some of his experimental results, which lead to some consequences. Now, Matthew must be supervised in any research which he could potentially receive funding for, and his employing university must cosign on ALL of his manuscript submissions, saying that the work is legitimate. Some might say that that’s not too bad, but consider this: any university who sees this background could be discouraged from hiring Matthew. After all, who wants to hire a researcher who needs to be watched over every time he wants to publish a paper?

Matthew may have made a mistake, but it isn’t one that is foreign to many graduate students. After weeks, months, years of terrible data, some students have toyed with the idea of toying with the data to produce more favorable results. Not out of malice, but out of desperation to finish their degrees. But these are only my thoughts, tell me what you think? Do you think the consequences are entirely too steep? Or that Matthew got what he deserves? Let me know what you thinl!

Until next time,

Dr. Chaos, signing off.



8 Replies to “Moral Kombat”

  1. After skimming Mathew’s case I think there are some important things to notice. Most of what he did could have fairly easily been corrected if he had just run an extra sample, or done one more run. He lied about triplicate experiments when he did double. He artificially shrank his error bars… statistically speaking, more replicates tend to shrink error bars. He falsified data regarding the purity of his sample, which probably could have been fixed by running it through one or two more purification steps.

    I’m really curious why he would falsify instead of doing that one more run. If it was time, avoiding the 3-years of supervision to lifetime of unemployment seems worth at least one more experiment…

    1. I agree wholeheartedly. An extra replicate would have really helped him in the long run. But as they say, hindsight is 20/20. At the time, Matthew probably didn’t consider the consequences. He was probably more concerned with completing and publishing research by the deadline; he could have even been running low on funding and felt like he had to quickly finish to avoid paying for additional time in school. Whatever the reason, we have to make sure that we, as graduate students, are producing quality work.

  2. I think the consequences are appropriate to the potential harm crimes of this nature can do to society, however I don’t think he should have been put in the situation in the first place. If he were publishing in a more science process oriented culture, where slightly non-significant results could get published, or where researchers were interested to hear about non-significant results he may not have felt he ‘needed’ to fudge the data. Thanks for posting.

    1. Thank you for commenting! Yes, in this world of publication bias, journals and big funding organizations are looking for only positive results, not considering that a negative result IS a part of research. Hopefully, people will realize this and we can avoid situations such as Matthew’s.

  3. This is something that really bothers me, if you read comments in the internet, people go “but he did that”. That “but” is so disturbing. 1) not every mistake deserves a lasting “consequence” 2) no every “consequence” is a fair one 3) in the rush of punishing the wrongs are we overlooking why are those mistakes being made?
    May be I am over generalizing, may be Matthew totally deserves being pulled back from all the opportunities. Nevertheless does building up that fear blocks the rest of the researchers from doing such unethical act? Even if it does, shouldn’t be there be a better way to lower/eliminate the acts?
    For the new GTAs grad school provides mandatory Ethics sessions on Teaching and the ethical dilemmas they might come across, so may be a good start would be to provide such resources to new researchers.

    1. Thanks for commenting! And I do believe that perhaps proper ethical training can help alleviate some of these situations. I also feel that if publishers and funding organizations stopped expecting research with only positive results, younger grad students wouldn’t feel so pressured to have “good data”.

  4. Hey Dr. Chaos! Your scenario about the coffee grounds made me start thinking about some studies that I hear about in the news. It seems to me like every couple of months I see a study that says drinking a glass of wine or a couple glasses of beer every night is the secret to living a longer life. But then I see articles that say stuff like drinking an extra glass of wine every night will reduce your lifespan by 30 minutes. It seems like if you want to find a study that backs your specific opinion then you can find it. In other words, if you want to find a study that says something, then you can probably find at least one that does…. I think another example of this is the whole vaccine vs. anti-vaccine debate. Since you work in food science and technology, do you think these sorts of studies are sponsored by industries so that’s why there are so many conflicting reports? Do you think the studies are truly unbiased?

    1. Thanks for commenting! Yes, working in the food science and technology field, I come across several different trends and opposing claims. I believe that there are two big problems: 1) publication bias, and 2) Conflicts of Interest.

      Publication bias is basically when journals and other publishing bodies have a tendency for only publishing studies that have “positive results”. This leads to situation’s like Matthew’s where students feel as though they can only submit positive data to be published. Conflict of interests also come into play when organizations that stand to benefit from positive results deal out funds. This puts a pressure on the researcher who feels obligated to produce results in line with the funding organization’s desires.

      Unfortunately these problems skew the public opinion, cause inconsistencies, and produce opposing claims. We must place importance on all types of results, not just good ones.

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