An overview of misconduct cases at the Office of Research Integrity (ORI)

The Office of Research Integrity (ORI) supervises research integrity activities on behalf of the Secretary of Health and Human Services. The government invests billions of dollars in health research and development every year, that is why the supervision of all these projects is so important.

One of the purposes of the ORI is the oversight of research misconduct inquiries and investigations, and propose the appropriate administrative actions.

According to the Code of Federal Regulations, title 42 Public Health, Part 93.103, research misconduct is the “fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results.”

On the website of ORI, we can find a summary, per year, of all the misconduct cases that this institution investigates. I decided to check all the cases for 2018 to explore similarities and differences among cases. I accessed the website and opened each case to learn more about the specific cause, professional stage of the researcher, the institution involved, and administrative action taken by the ORI, for a general understanding of the misconduct phenomenon.

After an overview of misconduct cases, I found that the researchers involved belonged to diverse research fields and professional stages, from Ph.D. students to Professors, and at the time of the misconduct were working in prestigious research institutions. For example, some researchers worked at the NIH or at renowned medical centers and universities. This makes me wonder whether these research institutions add too much pressure to their scientists to succeed as research agencies. I know the former reason is no justification to commit misconduct, but misconduct may be a simple expression of the broken system requesting high production rates from the scientific community. Or else is it simply a lack of professional ethics on the part of researchers?

Regarding the period the administrative sanctions will remain in force, I saw a range of 1 to 10 years of penalization. I believe that the magnitude of the misconduct is associated with the period of sanctions implemented. Nevertheless, the researcher’s reputation is damage independently to the period of sanction. I wonder if early students or postdocs, just starting their scientific careers, are less or more at risk of committing misconduct? For example, established professors may be less prone to misconduct considering the years of experience and the risk to lose their jobs and ruin their reputation -i.e., they have more to lose.

I found a case in which an Eminent Professor was discovered submitting an NIH grant application that included plagiarized text. This suggests that research agencies may be using software to detect plagiarized text. Faculty should be aware of automated detection of plagiarism considering some scientists use text from their previous publications. Thus, it is crucial to reduce plagiarism and employ proper citations and references to reduce risks of misconduct accusations in grant proposals. Sometimes we do not realize the consequences of a simple mistake to save some seconds of work.

6 Comments

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6 Responses to An overview of misconduct cases at the Office of Research Integrity (ORI)

  1. Thanks for the post. My post had a some overlap with yours so I’m glad I’m not alone in my thoughts and opinions on this subject! I would like to focus my comments on a general subject at the beginning of your post. It is found in the first paragraph. You wrote, “The government invests billions of dollars in health research and development every year, that is why the supervision of all these projects is so important.”
    I have always been skeptical of the comparative ease by which public, government money can be obtained. This is not to say that winning grants is an easy process. I know that it is not, but unlike private revenue, which must be acquired in a more organic fashion, government money is awarded. It is sitting, figuratively, in a big vault and is available for the gatekeepers to provide. This figurative vault is very alluring and may be too much for some to resist earning access to by honest means. This ORI website, which I didn’t know existed previously, is proof of this. It is sad to read, and I hope it is a wake up call to all of us in the world of scholarship that money is not worth our professional or personal souls. Thanks for the post.

  2. Jenna Davis

    Hi, great job! I completely agree that there is a certain pressure on researchers to provide research that is ground-breaking and might make people feel like they have to fabricate data in order to keep their job. I would say that younger people feel the pressure a little more because they want to get their name known and established. Maybe the people who are almost retired would get lazy and feel like they are being washed out, therefore falsifying data to get a good paper out? I’m not sure. Either way, there is pressure on researchers that leads to unethical actions and it needs to change.

  3. Michael Rhoades

    I understand the pressure researchers are under. However, if they are true researchers they must begin any process with removing as much bias as they can from their research. We all know that biases reduce the viability of the research. Certainly the bias caused by the underlying desire for self-gratification is one of the easiest to remove from the process, since we singularly control it, and one of the most important to. Bad research is very dangerous!

  4. Aanuoluwapo Ojelade

    You are right. ORI actually uses some software to detect fake or/and anomaly images. They also have some forensic tools (https://ori.hhs.gov/forensic-tools) which they use to detect anomalies with text and images. You can check the link to learn more.

  5. Lee Gill

    NIH is a very well known and prestigious organization that publishes a large number of research publications. However, this does not mean that there is no falsifying data misconduct in such organization. I agree with your comment that there’s too much pressure for scientists and researchers, which could psychologically leads to falsification of data. In order to prevent this, I believe a change in cultural norm that more publications will get you a better job will need to be changed.

  6. Kaiwen

    Very nice comparison and summary! I am also wondering why researchers, especially those prestigious ones, are willing to take the risk of ruining reputation to get involved with research misconduct activities. Young researchers may not be well aware of the consequences of misconduct behaviors. Experienced researchers should at least hear some negative cases as a warning to do something unethical. Some may wish they could get lucky of not being discovered. Others may even not realize that they’ve involved in misconduct activities as this might be done by team members, their irresponsible students, etc. In my opinion, punishment is not enough. Education and training on how to become a qualitative researcher is necessary and important.

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