Knowing Right from Wrong is Not the Same as Doing Right and Wrong
By Marianne Evola, Ph.D.
I have always loved superheroes! I’m not alone. Our culture has embraced superheroes for generations as they have evolved from the simple two-dimensional comics of my dad’s childhood to the kitschy movies and TV shows of my youth and onto our modern sophisticated films with exciting special effects. A recent series of discussions with undergrads, and an awesome summer for superhero films got me wondering why we so admire these characters. The obvious answer is those wondrous super powers and gadgets that make them invulnerable to all but a handful of super villains. However, super villains also have great power and gadgets, yet they remain secondary characters. It could be their bravery that we admire, but in actuality the superpowers and gadgets may negate a notable need for bravery since they are virtually invulnerable. I think what we admire is the simplicity of their world. In the world of superheroes right and wrong is always black and white, and invulnerability to harm makes doing the right thing a simple decision.
So, what do superheroes have to do with Responsible Research and Scholarship? Well, similar to superheroes, we need to know right from wrong to make the best decisions regarding our daily research endeavors. However, unlike superheroes, we often need to contemplate our vulnerability when making those decisions, which markedly complicates responsible decision making. This became notably clear to me during a recent series of presentations and discussions with a small group of very young and talented undergrads. We spent some time addressing case studies on responsible research conduct. During these discussions, a pattern quickly emerged. Once the case study was read, the students immediately identified the ethical issues presented in the reading. They would then immediately define the actions of the characters as “right” or “wrong.” Then when asked what they would do in that situation, they would immediately respond, “Intervene” or “Report it.” At that point I would push them a bit, trying to address the nuance of the situation and how external factors and other people may have influenced a bad decision. However, when pushed into the muddy waters of ethical decision making, these talented students would all too rapidly resort to an “I don’t know,” “This is hard” or my favorite “Why are you asking me?”. The trainees actively participated when ethics discussions seemed to have a simple black and white answer. However when faced with a plethora of conditional factors that addressed our own vulnerability and weakness, it seemed that their discomfort elicited
These discussions demonstrated that to address daily ethical decisions scholars need to:
- know the rules
- understand that internally and/or externally imposed pressures may influence their responsible decision making
- scholars also should be aware that there are independent resources and personnel with whom they can voice their concerns when making decisions in pressured situations. This month’s Scholarly Messenger will begin to address the rules of Responsible Research by discussing fabrication, falsification and plagiarism. Following issues will address additional rules and the complex task of making ethical decisions in pressured circumstances. If my experience with this group of undergrads is applicable to the general trainee population, knowing right from wrong is considerably easier than making ethical decisions under pressure.
So, what are the rules? The federal government Office of Research Integrity (ORI) defines research misconduct as engaging in:
- fabrication of data
- falsification of data
In addition, Texas Tech Operating Policy 74.08 also includes the following in the definition of misconduct:
- serious deviation from accepted practices in proposing, conducting or reporting results from research
- failure to comply with federal requirements for protection of researchers, human subjects or the public, or ensuring the welfare of laboratory animals
- failure to meet other material legal requirements governing research
- fraudulent conduct in research and scholarship
And finally OP 74.08 charges that “all members of the university community are responsible for reporting instances of misconduct in research or scholarly activity.” Included in the vague definition of “deviation from accepted practices in proposing, conducting or reporting results from research” could include issues such as:
- taking responsibility for the social impact of one’s creative activity
- ethical data and resource management and analysis
- ethical conduct within the academic community, including peer review, publication, authorship, collaboration and mentoring practices
- transparency and management of personal or financial conflict of interest
Now that is a lot of policy jargon, with a broad potential for bad daily research decisions, so the above issues will each be addressed in this series of articles.
We will begin by discussing fabrication and falsification of data and plagiarism (FFP). Engaging in these practices is very serious misconduct, sufficiently so that when federal support is associated with FFP, the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) may choose to intervene and investigate. Fabrication is outright making up or manufacturing data. Falsification is altering data, manipulating equipment and/or research design to produce particular results. Plagiarism is theft of words or ideas.
Fabrication and falsification are actions that oppose the very goals of research. Experiments are designed to address a research question. Based on the existing literature and previous work, we may have predictions about the results but we do not know that our hypothesis is correct until we test it. Fabricated or falsified data does not answer an experimental question but rather can disrupt scientific inquiry by implanting false data into the scientific literature. Furthermore, including fabricated or falsified pilot data in grant applications is also considered misconduct and is considered an actionable offense. This includes exaggerating effect or sample size or manipulating data in any way to demonstrate statistical significance where there is none. Pressures that elicit these behaviors are often external, when a lab needs pilot data to increase the likelihood of getting a grant funded. Often, the financial and living stability of all members of a lab, and their families, may be dependent on a grant being funded. This level of pressure can elicit misconduct by lab members or a principal investigator (PI) that feels responsible for the wellbeing of their research group. It is in this type of high pressure environment that ethical decisions are often made and lab members may feel that a slight exaggeration of pilot data can be rationalized. The simple rational would be that although as scientists we are responsible for the integrity of science, we are also responsible for our lab groups. I think that it is in these situations that we all need reminders of why we became researchers. A research career is not about making things up but rather following procedures to address research questions. If you are merely creating results that support your hypotheses, you are not contributing to science and maybe a career in fiction writing may be a better suited. There is creativity in research, but it generally consists of the insight involved in generating hypotheses from the existing literature and data and/or designing experiments that will test these hypotheses. Creativity in research does not involve creating or altering results.
Plagiarism is stealing from our colleagues or scientific ancestors. It is theft of words or ideas by using their work without giving credit for their contribution. When we present our research or publish our results, we trust that our colleagues will acknowledge our contribution and it is offensive when that trust is violated. I wrote an article on plagiarism (Scholarly Messenger, April 2012)
but to put it concisely, it is the responsibility of all researchers and students to make sure you understand plagiarism as defined by Texas Tech and to make sure that you abide the our cultural standards used to generate university policy. Plagiarism can be accidental or intentional, but either way, it is still plagiarism. Students and faculty should be aware of the new plagiarism detection software (i.e., iThenticate and Turn It In) which makes it very easy to detect plagiarism. Many faculty members are checking student work for plagiarism and an increasing number of professional journals are screening submitted manuscripts for plagiarism. However, students and faculty can also utilize this software to screen their own work for accidental plagiarism before submitting their coursework or professional manuscripts. To protect yourself, a simple rule of thumb is if there is any doubt about whether you should cite a source, do it. Failure to appropriately cite your work could get you in lots of trouble.
In so many ways we need to be better than superheroes. The world of research is never black and white and most of us are vulnerable to external pressures. But we cannot forget our responsibility to research while struggling to maintain and grow a research career.
In the October issue of Scholarly Messenger I will continue to address rules beyond FFP beginning with taking social responsibility for one’s work.
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.