Week 1. Allegations of Misconduct

“Misconduct” is some action which is viewed as sufficiently inappropriate that sanctions must be imposed on the transgressor. Most scientists agree with this statement, but often disagree with the definitions of each part. In laboratory life, a critical and painful decision must be made if you begin to suspect a co-worker of misconduct. 

What is misconduct? Is it only the most serious deviation (fraud, fabrication, plagiarism?) or can it include actions such as deliberately suppressing observations or taking credit when that is not warranted? When does “bad science” cross the line into misconduct? To what extent is “intent” required - does a finding of misconduct require that a scientist be proven to have deliberately set out to deceive?

What action should be taken in “early stages” of misconduct to discourage such behavior? What training is appropriate to reduce the chances of significant deviations in behavior from the ethical norm? 

What consequences does misconduct have? Is science so “self correcting” that misconduct has no lasting or significant effect? Even if “Science” corrects itself, what about the time required to repeat experiments and correct the record? How destructive is the perception that misconduct occurs and is not punished (whether the perception is accurate or not), if the perception is held by scientists, the public or funding agencies? 

What are appropriate sanctions? How should they be applied? Who should decide whether sanctions are called for? 

What actions should you take, if you believe that a colleague is engaged in serious misconduct? 

How certain must you be, at each step in taking actions?

Sample Scenarios

Case: Dealing with Suspicions of Misconduct

(From “Teaching the Responsible Conduct of Research through a Case Study Approach:” AAMC, 1994. Reprinted with permission of the Association of American Medical Colleges)

Dr. Carlos Gonzalez is a well-known investigator at the peak of his career. He has a reputation for being brilliant, demanding, and intensely competitive. The university values him greatly and he receives offers to move to highly attractive positions elsewhere on a regular basis. His laboratory publishes on average 30 papers a year and he is always included as author.

One of Dr. Gonzalez’s first year postdocs, Dr. Grace Hung, comes to him and says that a very important result recently published by his laboratory in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science was fraudulent. This paper has already received considerable attention.

Dr. Hung says the principal author, Dr. Edward Lansing, made up most of the data, because a key assay was not working. This was discovered, she noted, when she tried to utilize the assay. Dr. Lansing has worked with Dr. Gonzalez for five years. The two have published several papers together and have become personal friends. Dr. Gonzalez hardly knows Dr. Hung.

1. How should Dr. Gonzalez respond to this complaint? How should he deal with:

Dr. Hung?
Dr. Lansing?
The data that have now been called into question?
The institution in which all three individuals work?
The journal in which the possibly fraudulent data were reported?
2. Assume Dr. Gonzalez is unresponsive to Dr. Hung’s complaint. How might Dr. Hung follow up on her concerns?
3. Assume that Dr. Gonzalez proceeds by asking Dr. Lansing obliquely about the assay used for the project, mentioning that Dr. Hung seems to have some kind of problem with it. In spite of Dr. Gonzalez’s subtlety, Dr. Lansing suspects that this inexperienced postdoc has planted some serious suspicions in Dr. Gonzalez’s mind. Since Dr. Lansing is confident of the accuracy of his work, how should he respond to Dr. Gonzalez? Should Dr. Lansing approach Dr. Hung, and if so, what should he say to her?

Case: Shared Interest / Responsibility

(From “Teaching the Responsible Conduct of Research through a Case Study Approach:” AAMC, 1994. Reprinted with permission of the Association of American Medical Colleges)

Dr. Martha Shelby, a faculty member at Harrington University School of Medicine, was asked by the editor of a journal specializing in pediatrics research to review a paper on a new drug treatment for childhood leukemia. The paper was submitted by Dr. Stewart Crain, a pediatric oncologist at Cruxton Medical Center and a former colleague of hers when both were on faculty at Chandler Medical School.

In reviewing the manuscript, Dr. Shelby was struck by certain language in the introductory section that had a very familiar, yet not immediately recognizable, ring to it. After finishing the paper, which she found reasonably well prepared, she continued to experience a nagging feeling over the language that seemed to echo something she had read before.

Upon further contemplation, Dr. Shelby recollected a thesis prepared several years ago by an M.D./Ph.D. student at Chandler who worked under Dr. Crain’s tutelage. She had reviewed the paper as a member of the thesis committee. By calling the medical library, Dr. Shelby was able to obtain a copy of the thesis and realized that Dr. Crain’s introduction incorporated nearly word-for-word the history of therapeutic advances in leukemia described by the student. She considered calling Dr. Crain about the problem, but dreaded the idea of a direct confrontation. She was then on the verge of calling Dr. William Sachs, the head of the oncology department at Cruxton, when she realized that Dr. Sachs was a coauthor on the paper. She feared that Dr. Sachs might not take her complaint to heart.

1. What are Dr. Shelby’s obligations as a reviewer in this situation?
2. Given the various individuals and institutions that might have an interest in this incident, to whom might Dr. Shelby report the apparent plagiarism? Is there any institution to which, or person to whom, she has an obligation to report this finding?
3. Assume Dr. Shelby relays her concerns to Dr. Sachs. What responsibilities does Dr. Sachs have as coauthor on the paper and as Dr. Crain’s boss, once he becomes aware of Dr. Shelby’s concerns?
4. Assume Dr. Sachs is unresponsive. What should Dr. Shelby do next?
5. If made aware of the allegation, what are the responsibilities of
The pediatrics research journal editor,
Cruxton Medical Center,
Harrington University School of Medicine, and
Chandler Medical School, in responding to the possibility of plagiarism? 
6. Assume that the former M.D./Ph.D. student at Chandler Medical School discovered the plagiarism, not Dr. Shelby. As the original author of the plagiarized material, would the appropriate response for the former student be any different? 


Goodstein D. Scientific Misconduct in Academe
Malakoff, D. SCIENTIFIC MISCONDUCT: The Multiple Repercussions of a Fudged Grant Application.
Science, Vol 300, Issue 5616, 40 , 4 April 2003.
Lessons of the Stem Cell Scandal
Science 3 February 2006:Vol. 311. no. 5761, pp. 614 - 615
Disgraced cloner's ally is cleared of misconduct.
Nature 439, 768-769 (16 February 2006)
Standards for papers on cloning
Nature 439, 243 (19 January 2006)
Getting a Grip on Scientific Misconduct
Christina Ochsenbauer
The misuses of data and gun control policy

Institutional Policies

Research Integrity Policy for Washington University

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