Does anyone remember taking the CITI responsible conduct in research training as a graduate school requirement? I do, and I also remember every made-up scenario being pretty ridiculous. In addition, I remember thinking that I know these situations happen in the real world, I guess? I’ve personally never known anyone or heard a secondhand story of anyone who has done this. However, situations happen all the time where people conduct studies incorrectly or falsify data.
The main, probably most popular, story of misconduct in research that comes to mind is the story of how vaccinations cause autism. Which, by the way, vaccinations do NOT cause autism in children. In 1998, a gastroenterologist by the name of Andrew Wakefield published an article that sparked this controversy. Many things that are essential to a sound scientific study were handled incorrectly in this case: there was a small sample size (n=12); participants in the study were selected, not chosen at random; and there was no control group. The publisher later came out saying that the information was “utterly false” and the paper was retracted. This paper caused a ripple effect. Many parents decided to not vaccinate their children. Many scientific studies had to occur and many scientific papers had to be published to refute the claims of Wakefield. As a greater result, many parents STILL, IN 2017, choose to not vaccinate their children. Why?? Why do people still question the work of credible, reputable scientists after this huge myth has been shown to be false?? As a scientist, it is extremely frustrating. For more information on this situation, you can see here where the Wakefield publication was retracted, and you can see a response article to the situation here.
I explored another case summary this week in research misconduct, and it was about Alec Mirchandani from Florida Atlantic University. Alec is a former post-baccalaureate research volunteer in the Center for Complex Systems and Brain Sciences. (Side note- why would a volunteer falsify data?! But I digress. Sigh) He knowingly and intentionally did these four things: 1) fabricated recorded results for three of five study mice on fourteen out of sixteen study days to make it appear as if he conducted the experiment; 2) falsified animal transfer logs on twelve out of sixteen study days to make it appear as if he conducted the experiment; 3) fabricated recording times on fourteen out of sixteen study days to make it appear as if he conducted the experiment; and 4) reported results of the fabricated and falsified data to his principal investigator in a way that the experiments were not accurately represented. Alec was reprimanded and entered into a voluntary settlement agreement with the ORI (office of research integrity).
Why is it that people do this? I understand that there is a lot of pressure within the academic community to perform and produce results, but is it worth all of this? In this case, it sounds like if the guy would have just recorded the data when it needed to be recorded, he wouldn’t be in the situation he is in now. I am an understanding person and also know that sometimes, things come up and you can’t always record your data when it should be recorded. In that case, you should ask a labmate to fill in for you, or just be honest with your PI and let them know that you weren’t able to record the observation. No matter what, honesty is always the best policy. And in this case, it definitely would have been better to have a few missing data points than a completely fabricated scientific study.
Anyways, these scientific studies aren’t the first two to ever be fabricated or falsified, and they definitely won’t be the last. All we can do as scientists is to do our best and publish good, honest work.