Integrity in research is like handing over the keys when you’ve had one too many

I just read about Matthew Poore and the data he falsified:

Here’s what I think: lying about research is like drunk driving.  It’s too easy to do.  And we aren’t very good at detecting all the times it happens.  Therefore, the consequences need to be severe and as close to permanent as possible.

Matthew Poore used results from an experiment as results from a second experiment that never actually took place.  No one knows if this was laziness or lack of funding or a time crunch.  And who cares?  We’re all under the same pressure and experience the same constraints.  The rest of us manage to get it done without lying.  What if the person who conducted the safety testing on your mother’s new cancer medicine was lying?  Or your child’s allergy medicine?  This is an intensely serious problem.

According to the CDC, the average drunk driver has driven drunk 80 times before his first arrest.  How many times did Matthew Poore lie prior to being caught?  We’ll never know.  And will he continue to lie?  About one third of arrested drunk drivers are repeat offenders (NDOT, 1995).

But wait, you say.  Matthew Poore must now go through a rigorous three year probationary period.  Ha!  I hope you noticed that once the ORI has approved his plan for research supervision, it is none other than Matthew Poore himself who is responsible for compliance to said plan.  Who should we rely on to tell us if the lying offender is following the rules now?  Clearly someone thought that the lyer himself was the best answer.  Come on, people! Fifty to 75% of drunk drivers continue to drive on their suspended licenses (Peck, et al., American Journal of Public Health, 1995).  The punishment is not harsh enough to deter people from lying and continuing to do so even if caught.

My solution is whiskey plates.  In Minnesota, convicted drunk drivers must have special license plates on their cars identifying them as such.  If you are caught cheating, you must henceforth put a special astrick next to your name on every publication.  That way we know to watch out for swerving and to drive a little more defensively.


  4 comments for “Integrity in research is like handing over the keys when you’ve had one too many

  1. blogosaurus
    September 23, 2013 at 4:04 pm

    Your analogy is a good one. I am curious how long you would propose to leave the asterisk next to the researcher’s name? Would this be for a period of time that corresponds to the severity of the infraction? Indefinitely? This is akin to putting a warning label on a package of cigarettes or bottle of alcohol. “Warning! Contents can be hazardous to your health!” Because, in reality, that can be the outcome. I have had several physicians over the years that would quote various peer reviewed articles as we discussed health treatments. The idea that serious, sometimes life and death, decisions might be made based on fraudulent publications concerns me a great deal. Not to mention the papers that come along thereafter that unknowingly continue to cite the bad data. If a paper is retracted, it’s side effects may continue to live on…

  2. svyantek
    September 23, 2013 at 5:20 pm

    I personally love the idea of an academic whisky plate….but I’m hesitant to adopt this idea wholesale, based in part on my question of “Do the whisky plates ever come off?”

    If we have things like voluntary agreements, we are basically “paroling” academic criminals – for misdemeanors and felonies. Is there a certain point where the ORI just says, “Enough!” and puts researchers on ice for life? No more research, ever? You can’t publish again, EVER?

    And if we are rehabilitating these individuals, who, for whatever reason (funding, time, cultural issues) have committed research misconduct, when do we start to trust them again? At what point will they have proven themselves to the greater scientific community?

    • sarahhollandiii
      September 23, 2013 at 7:59 pm

      I’m not sure how long the asterick would stay on. My point with the drunk driving is that it is SO easy to commit this crime that you need a punishment that comes crashing to the forefront of the mind of someone contemplating such behavior. I’d vote for longer rather than shorter. And you mentioned rehabilitation. I suppose that the supervisor should be “rehabilitating” the convicted researcher but I wonder to what extent this really happens. Lying and cheating are very personal decisions and I’m not sure how successful we are at changing people at this level.

  3. svyantek
    September 23, 2013 at 8:34 pm

    Well, then should we have this sort of asterisk at the undergraduate level? Should these sort of research ethical issues and consequences be translated backwards into issues of cheating and plagarism in the undergraduate coursework level so those individuals would never get into research positions in the first place?

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