Texas Tech University
Scholarly Messenger
Daily Ethical Decision-Making
By Marianne Evola

Using case studies is a common strategy to address the issues of research misconduct. But is it the best way?

It is an easy way to grasp the attention of your audience because scandal is somehow attractive to our human nature. TV networks have known this forever; decades of soap operas, serial dramas and the more recent bombardment of reality TV feeds the scandal appetite for a mass audience. In fact, I have friends that are hooked on a very popular show titled “Scandal,” but I have not watched it myself.

Therefore, when presenting potentially dry material on Responsible Research Conduct and Integrity, presenting scandalous research misconduct is an enticing way to draw your audience in and thus convey the importance of integrity in research. However, I’m beginning to realize that there are problems with this approach to research integrity training. Presenting the “scandal” of career-killing case studies of fraud makes it too easy for students to separate themselves and their small daily decisions from the destructive decisions made by scientific villains.

A couple years ago, after the exposure of the major research fraud of Dierderik Stapel, I read a wonderful article by Jennifer Crocker (2011) titled “The Road to Fraud Starts with a Single Step.” In this article, Crocker lays out an argument that the potential to follow a path to academic fraud lies within all of us, and it is making small research decisions with integrity that protects most of us from following that path. She proposed that a commitment to integrity while making small daily decisions will protect an active research career from deteriorating to fraud. However, I would add to her argument that when under pressure, often fighting fatigue, maintaining integrity while making small decisions becomes incredibly difficult. Thus, one major limitation of teaching with major case studies of research fraud is that we don’t know what minor misdeeds these people took on their journey to major misconduct. And in fact, by the time their misconduct was revealed, their collection of misdeeds is so extraordinarily bad that it is easy for students to separate themselves from offensive character and fraudulent practice of these fallen academics. It is easier to categorize them as bad human beings rather than consider what tiny shortcuts may have led to major misconduct.

The other problem with presenting major case studies of fraud is that unfortunately, there are also bad lessons that can be learned, depending on a student’s definition of success. During a recent presentation, I was a bit taken aback when a student commented on the desire for success underlying misconduct. It was his reference to the “success” of Diederik Stapel and Eric Poehlman that stunned me because from the perspective of research misconduct, they now serve as the poster children for fraud. However, the truth is, before their fraud was revealed, both of these men held positions of reverence within their respective fields. So, if a student defines career success as attaining affluence and power without consideration to honor, the lesson learned may be: “Don’t get caught.” In contrast to this student’s assertion that a desire for success underlies misconduct, it is my opinion that very few people pursue an academic career with a primary motivation of affluence and power. Furthermore, I don’t believe that anyone enters academics with the intention of lying, cheating and stealing their way to success. Simply put, there are much easier routes to that type of success rather than an advanced degree in any area of research. A career in academics is an extraordinary amount of work, and comparably speaking, the financial benefits are proportionally small as compared to the hourly benefits of alternate careers. Because of this, I believe that academics begin their education and careers with honorable intensions to contribute to and advance science. Unfortunately, for a select few, the pressure to produce in combination of escaping detection of minor misdeeds leads to bigger and bigger transgressions and a progression to fraud. Thus, the key to preventing misconduct may be to prevent the minor misdeeds.

So, below I will propose some self-imposed or externally imposed protections that may minimize the likelihood of minor misdeeds in the lab:

  • Utilize experimental design to minimize the ability and willingness of students to cut corners that could influence their data. I remember in graduate school, when I was pushing to finish data collection for my dissertation, I made a small mistake in my experimental plans that resulted in several weeks of extraordinarily long hours in the lab. One of the major physical demands of my research was washing research equipment. My research involved rats, which have sensitive olfactory systems, and as such, it is critically important to wash equipment between experiments to diminish the scent trails of other animals. The equipment was very heavy, and the cleaning protocol was time consuming. As the 20-hour days progressed, it was a constant temptation to cut a corner and skip washing the equipment. Luckily, I had also integrated a great deal of randomization to experiments. The randomization blinded me to expectations because it required great focus to efficiently follow the complex design laid out in spreadsheets and treatment logs. Violating my defined protocol could have easily biased my data for or against my hypothesis. When I think back on these experiments, I have to honestly admit that the complexity of my research design protected me from making a poor decision while fighting exhaustion during the late hours in the lab. After working a 20-hour day, I was not going to cut a corner that could work against my hypothesis.

  • Encourage all lab personnel, including yourself, to be attentive and involved in all lab projects. Mentor a dynamic and friendly research environment where everyone feels comfortable inquiring and critiquing the work of others, even small decisions and procedures. For example, if a student proposes handling animals for five days prior to the start of experiments, push them to consider how long each animal will be handled on each day, in what manner will they be handled and how will this minimize the impact of stress on experiments. Encourage all lab personnel to inquire and propose improvements to procedure. This educates students on how to critique the work of others as well as how to suffer the bold critique that they will face with a less friendly research audience. Once a procedure is defined, be present or have other lab personnel present during experiments. Senior lab personnel should supervise new students, and new students should shadow senior lab personnel. A valuable role for undergrad assistants is to shadow and discuss procedure. Make supervision routine so that all students, junior and senior, are aware that their lab activities are observed. If you are lucky, someone will be present on that day when an exhausted student is tempted to take a minor shortcut, and their minor misdeed will be prevented by the interactive environment.

  • Be alert to lab personnel who only want to conduct experiments when no one else is present in the lab. Sometimes there are legitimate reasons for this, such as limited availability to equipment, causing students to conduct experiments after hours and on weekends. However, in cases such as this, try to have more than one student present. This can address safety/security concerns, as well. Decisions can be influenced by the presence of peers and even subordinates. I remember when I was in graduate school, a few classmates of mine were given the surprise of a take-home final from a professor who was tired of trying to read student handwriting. They were told that this was still an exam, and they were not to work together nor were they to refer to their textbook or notes. The professor wanted the exams typed, so that they were easier to read. Although this will shock students of today, this was during a time before every student had access to a home computer, so my peers all took their exam to the university computer lab for completion. The interesting thing is that a good friend of mine later told me that she was relieved that her classmates were sitting next to her in the computer lab. She would have been irresistibly tempted to peek at her notes if her classmates had not been there. I was impressed by her honesty at the time, but years later, I am also impressed that she described herself as relieved that others were there to monitor actions. Notice, these were just fellow students, they had no authority over her, yet their presence influenced her decision.

  • Remember to be aware of and sensitive to the pressures people face at different points of their careers. Be proactive in addressing those pressures to forearm your personnel against bad decisions. Remember that undergrad assistants can often be highly motivated to please everyone in the lab and may not have been schooled that “the data are the data.” Be alert to jaded senior graduate students who “just want to be done.” They often lose the desire to assist junior students and seclude themselves from everyone except their dissertation committee, so that they won’t have to answer the dreaded question: “When will you graduate?” The pressure and seclusion can provide graduate students with rationalization and opportunity to make bad choices. Postdocs or junior faculty are pressured to jump through the career hoops that lead to tenure. Often, this population also has the additional pressure of providing family stability as well as career growth. Senior scientists, who have maintained a funded research group for decades, are now facing the impact of limited research dollars. Now, their great research progress is threatened by increased competition for funding and changes in funding standards. Senior scientists often also face the pressure of providing jobs and security to lab personnel and their families, people with whom they have established professional and personal relationships. Without proper education and reminders of honorable research behavior, any of these populations can justify shortcuts as a means to an end. Seldom can we reduce the pressure faced by these people. However, addressing the pressure, providing guidance and reminding personnel of the importance of honor in research can go a long way toward preventing bad decisions.
With regard to education on research integrity, I think the more important message is the danger of how minor missteps can lead to overt unethical decision-making. I think that it is critical to educate students on the importance of best practices that lead to an honorable and productive research career. Admittedly, I will probably still utilize major case studies of research fraud in my presentations as examples of the damage that misconduct can impose on research, as well as their ability to grab the attention of a sometimes reluctant audience. However, I have learned the importance of including a discussion on the wrong messages that students can take away from case studies.

Marianne Evola is senior administrator in the Responsible Research area of the Office of the Vice President for Research. She is a monthly contributor to Scholarly Messenger. Alice Young, associate vice president for research/research integrity, is a contributing author/editor.