RCR, Ethics, and the Pressure to Publish

(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!


*See the podcast Planet Money episode 677: The Experiment Experiment

Math Pun: Don’t be mean. Be something less sensitive like median or mode.
(Today’s math pun brought to you by descriptive statistics)

10 thoughts on “RCR, Ethics, and the Pressure to Publish

  1. bencoleman says:

    Great post. What solutions would you offer for the file drawer issue in particular, as well as the other motivating factors you cover? I came to many of the same thoughts you did on my case study as well.

    • gabrils says:

      It is very hard to say what solutions to offer without knowing the exact causes. Given academic pressure is a cause, I would push for different methods of employee evaluation. For instance, evaluating researchers on written progress reports given research is not ready for publication. As for the file drawer issue, I believe there are more complex motivations that essentially boil down to bias and a failure to check and balance the peer review process. In what research I have done, I have found awareness to be the simplest effective method for combating bias.

  2. Julie says:

    Very good post. First thing I thought about when I started into writing my post was the RCR and the training that we as graduate students had to go through when we started here. I also am curious about what causes people to break their RCR or be unethical – it kind of feeds off of what we discussed in class about publish or perish.

    • gabrils says:

      I’m glad you say that, Julie. Our RCR training is exactly what motivated my thoughts on this post! It’s almost wild to think about breaking RCR and ethics policies, but it happens. Whatever the motivation may be, something definitely has to be done about it. It’s equivalent to driving people to murder their careers!

      • tshuba says:

        I do not claim to know exactly what explains the motivations of graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, project scientists, research professors, and professors to commit research misconduct. However, I would hypothesize that many do so simply because they believe that it will go undetected by their peers, in general, or the United States Department of Health and Human Service Office of Research Integrity, specifically. Consider that the periods of 2016, 2017, and 2018 have resulted in six, seven, and fourteen individuals, respectfully, who have had an administrative action imposed against them. Overall, twenty-seven findings of research misconduct over three years is not very significant relative to the large number of both degree-granting two-year and four-year postsecondary institutions in the U.S. (i.e., greater than 4,000) and professors, associate professors, assistant professors, instructors, lecturers, and other faculty at degree-granting postsecondary institutions (i.e., greater than 800,000) [1], [2].

        [1] https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d16/tables/dt16_317.40.asp
        [2] https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d16/tables/dt16_315.20.asp

  3. sbbaron says:

    I think you made a very solid point when you stated “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.” You seem to understand the reality of the pressure at different level research institutions. I believe this may be something that we need to better educate individuals to think about when planning their futures. That R1 institutions will have extreme pressure and that it may not be for everyone, and that’s ok.

  4. mgbullar says:

    Yes!!! I love Planet Money and that episode was really insightful when I thought about research in general and whether we’re doing it wrong. I posted about this in my ethics class, an except of which is mentioned below:

    “In the podcast, Nosek mentioned that 97% of results in academic journals are positive results. If the establishment only accepts positive results and researchers need to be published, the incentive to manipulate data in order to find something significant is high.

    The question then becomes this: is it unethical for the scientific establishment to create a practice or standard that leads to unethical actions by members of that establishment? Is the responsibility on the individual to refrain from unethical action (potentially at the cost of career success) or the collective (to change practices that encourage this)?”

    ( https://blogs.lt.vt.edu/mgbullar/2018/09/10/are-we-doing-science-wrong/ )

    The pressure to publish and the incentives that are created by the establishment to create provocative research to publish create a dynamic where unethical practices are necessary to survive.

  5. Natali Carolina Huggins de Murzi says:

    I enjoyed reading your post and your perspective about the importance to be clear in career paths. I agreed with you, the pressure for publication and grant approval in this types of universities are very high, but that is not a reason to become an unethical researcher as you said is better to choose the right university and balance the pressure before becoming and unethical researcher

  6. Carlos Michelen says:

    I am having some of the same thoughts about whether I want to do research at an R1 institute, which is sad since becoming a professor and teaching is one of the reasons I wanted a Ph.D. One should not have to choose between the work you like and your sanity. And what bothers me the most is that I honestly beleive it does not have to be this way. The pressure and unhealthily stressful environment are not necessary, they are based on misguided evaluation criterias and even a bit of a culture of hazing.

  7. fffinch says:

    I think your post makes a very strong argument on the topic of ethics in higher education: the problem is (at least in part) cultural. When we had our class discussion on tenure, I remember feeling proxy stress for the academics who are up against a ticking clock to prove their worth to acquire tenure. The pressure to publish something “interesting” and the culture of competition against your own colleagues are, for me, the molecular opposite of a positive vision of higher education and research. I maintain that in an environment without economic pressure and uncertain employment – this is to say, in an environment without this kind of institutional violence – the problem would almost entirely go away. People who are passionate enough about their field to devote a life to academia are not predisposed to make things up and hinder progress. There must be something powerful and toxic about the culture of needing to stand out in which people feel obliged to violate ethics to survive. This all reminds me of Philip Zombardo’s remarks on his prison experiment: the misbehavior of the guards had much more to do with the costume and the environment than the men themselves.

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