For those who still remember the chant from The Wizard of Oz about “Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!” I hope you enjoyed the title :). But since research misconduct is no laughing matter, I must switch to a more serious tone for the rest of this post…
On the Office of Research Integrity’s website, there is an unfortunately LONG list of cases of research misconduct. If you skim through a few of these case summaries, you will see dozens of examples of falsification, fabrication, and plagiarism. What catches me off guard is how many individuals will flat out lie about what their data suggests or will manipulate the data to tell another story. One researcher, a post-doctoral fellow, “falsely colored and photomanipulated” several images of embryos that were included in both published and unpublished manuscripts. Several of the photomanipulations portrayed something opposite of what the original photos actually portrayed. The consequences of those choices: for three years, this researcher cannot 1) contract or subcontract with any agency of the US government, nor 2) serve in any advisory capacity to the Public Health Service.
Think for a moment of all the consequences of post-doc’s choice to manipulate photos in the course of his/her research. Because this researcher got caught, he/she is severely limited by the rulings of the ORI. But what if this researcher had not been caught? What if the false data and images provided in these journal articles had continued being accepted by the general community? A few different things could have happened. For example, maybe several years and a lot of funding money would have been wasted in trying to discover that the findings of that paper were actually false. Or maybe many years and a lot more money would have been spent perpetuating this false conclusion and leading other researchers down the wrong path. What if this research had been the basis for a new medical procedure or new drug, and it affected the lives of hundreds, thousands, or more?
Misleading others through our research is no joke. It is serious, and has long-lasting consequences. It is unfortunate that in our time the pressure to publish novel, ground-breaking research has pushed some to falsify or fabricate their data. It is unfortunate that when we spend so much time on a project to find that we have nothing to show for it, we are tempted to misrepresent our findings so that it looks more impressive or so we can get a journal article out of it. I hope that I will not give in to that temptation, even under immense pressure to publish or perish. I hope that we will all recognize the need to be honest in our research and point the culture of research toward something more honest, more transparent, and more truthful. If you are considering making a seemingly small change to that one little plot, just pause for a moment and remind yourself that it really does matter.