(Bit of a long one this time. I’ll try to make this post bearable though!)
When one begins his journey in academia or thinks of successful scientists, neither responsible conduct in research (RCR) nor ethics typically come to mind. Despite this, both RCR and ethics in general play a vastly essential role in being able to sustain a lasting career in academia and the sciences. RCR and ethics are instrumental in shaping research methods and purposes:
- RCR allows researchers to show accountability in their work and encourage replicable results and methods.
- Ethics show responsibility in experimental design and determines the humane and benevolent nature of potential research outcomes.
With these purposes in mind, it is much clearer to see the kind of fundamental service they provide to the world of academia and the sciences. Thankfully, most institutions have RCR and ethics policies enforced by internal and external administrations to ensure research integrity. Though, despite this, there are (and continue to be) cases in which researchers are found to be in violation of these policies.
I often find it odd when these cases surface, because these violations are typically met with loss of funding, restrictions, or license revocations. Although these punishments do not seem as harsh as, say, prison time, they are devastating to the future of one’s research career. It’s almost equivalent to being marked with a scarlet letter in the research community; it is very difficult to bounce back from.
With this much at stake, why is it that researchers even risk their career for poor RCR and ethical practices? Personally, I believe it is the pressure on some researchers to frequently publish impactful work. Especially in institutions highly focused on research outcomes and publications (usually R1 universities) the pressure to publish can be quite intense; typically one’s standing at work or employment status can be in danger.
Take for instance the case of Dr. H. M. Krishna Murthy: Murthy, a former associate research professor at the University of Alabama (UAB), was found guilty of fabricating research results in multiple publications which were then referenced in multiple NIH grants. Murthy’s case is a very clear example of how research intensive environments can occasionally push researchers to put their careers at risk. As a professor I’m sure Murthy had lot of pressure to publish, particularly in high impact journals. When reviewing his case, the falsified publications were retracted from very prestigious and high impact journals in the science community: Cell, Nature, Biochem, etc. Publications in these journals are often viewed as very high achievements in science, thus these publications would have relieved any intense pressure to publish for Murthy and allowed him easier access to further grants.
Although Murthy’s actions were very clear violations of RCR and ethics policies, his case illuminates bigger issues in publication processes and academic environments. In the publication process there is a phenomenon called the file drawer issue in which publications with less exciting or groundbreaking findings are published less often than publications capable of more interesting headlines*. As a result, if the research you have dedicated your time and grant money to does not have incredibly interesting results, your work is less likely to be published thus increasing the internal intensity of the pressure to publish. Furthermore, I find the current academic environment in research focused universities to be very stifling to progress in general. Although a little pressure is healthy for productivity, too much pressure can lead to job dissatisfaction, higher levels of perceivable stress, and deter future scientists from making larger contributions to their field; I love my research, but I would never choose to be a research professor for an R1 institution, despite the prestige and funding, for the sake of my sanity and free time.
I find it interesting to think of what factors encourage researchers to to violate RCR and ethics policies. What do you all think? Do you agree? Are there other factors I’m neglecting? Let me know what you all think in the comments!