The Office of Research Integrity publishes case summaries of research misconduct, almost all of which are related to the falsification and fabrication of data in the field of health science. A commonality seems to be the repeated – hardly ever single – occurrence of offence. What’s more interesting, or appalling, is that the series of questionable papers were often authored by the same set of people. The case of Zhiyu Li (2016) is an example. On a number of manuscripts and grant applications, the respondent knowingly, intentionally and recklessly made false claims, supported with tampered images and fabricated data.

First, I have to say the offenders, however unethical, garner some sympathy. The pressure to produce results – to continue one’s career – can be withering. Enough so that lies, and multiple lies, were deemed necessary. Those currently doing their PhD research can probably relate. The mounting frustration during the few years is likely only the tip of the iceberg compared to the enormous challenge of having  to make one’s career, livelihood, and sense of self-manifestation out of research. And as with all research, it continues to exist only with progress. Real or fake.

Li’s case brings to question how research should be collaborated and validated. What were the roles of the 3 other authors of the faulty publications? Whose responsibility was it to validate and cross-check? Were the other authors held accountable in any way? Where is the line drawn between collaboration and collusion? Is there a system in place to allow whistle-blowing? It’s unbelievable that none of the authors thought to put an end to the chain of deceit.

I don’t know the answer to how to make cheating the less appealing alternative. However, I do think that more cases of ethical behavior should be published, heard and rewarded. Research misconduct seems like the last resort, but it does not have to be if researchers were aware of other options and know where to get help if necessary.