Perceptions of Bias: A Source for Scandal
By Marianna Evola
Bias versus objectivity is a common topic that I address when I present to students on responsible research conduct. During the presentation I bluntly ask students, "Are we objective as scientists?" The students immediately foresee the point that I am going to make because their responses have universally been some variant of, "We try to be." Then we discuss the importance of scrutiny and skepticism in research. Specifically, we discuss the importance of being skeptical of one's own work. And most importantly, the importance of being skeptical of beautiful data that makes you want to do a "happy dance". I have been inspired by student awareness that we aspire to reach the ideal of objectivity in research and that to do so, we much constantly address bias in our research ideas and experimental design.
Although I am inspired by student awareness to bias, it does not surprise me. As I remember back to my early training in research, concerns for and contributions to bias were regularly addressed in my coursework. Students have been readily willing to discuss potential for bias in research. In contrast, however, during casual conversations with faculty, I have twice been cautioned that utilizing the term "bias" could be perceived of as sharp or accusing. This made me wonder that as one's career evolves from student to faculty whether there is a perception or expectation that there should be a corresponding evolution from bias to objectivity. As such, does bias become a bad word as our careers evolve? Let's hope not since I will be addressing bias at length and my goal is to clarify and not offend. The being said, if there is such an expectation, is it realistic and mort importantly with regard to my below discussion, could an unrealistic expectation of complete objectivity leave us vulnerable to allegations of bias as careers grow and become more complex?
To clarify my perspective, bias is neither good nor bad, it is simply the natural state of human beings conducting research. Similarly, conflicts of interest and/or commitment are neither good nor bad, they are simply the natural result of complex and productive academic careers. The reasons that bias and/or conflicts of interest can be damaging to academic research is that researchers fail to acknowledge that their agenda or circumstances could potentially, or perceivably, bias research results. Or, researchers fail to realize that their conflicting professional endeavors leave them vulnerable to allegations of bias made by competitors that utilize an opportunity to question the objectivity of their research. As such, too often, researchers fail to minimize potential bias through experimental design and/or teamwork. Or, more accurately, they fail to document the steps that they have taken to minimize bias which would protect their reputation.
At this point it would be good to clarify some terms to avoid confusion. Bias, as we all know, is a natural prejudice for or against someone or something. In the case of research, we can be readily biased for or against an experimental outcome that would support or fail to support our hypothesis or the hypotheses of competitors. Potential for bias refers to circumstances surrounding your life or research that could potentially influence decisions made during the experimental processes. For example, if you stand to financially benefit from the outcome of research, there is a strong potential for bias. Perceivable bias refers to the perceptions of others and whether they perceive that your circumstances could motivate prejudice in research decisions. Perceivable bias may have no grounds in real prejudice, or wrongdoing on the part of the researcher. Rather it merely refers to the perceptions of others, colleagues, competitors or even enemies. However, even though perceivable bias may have no basis in the reality of any bad decisions, it should be noted that competitors or enemies can readily "spin" the information to damage one's reputation. Sadly, you could do everything right, and the perceptions of others could be utilized to damage your reputation.
Too often, when conflicts of interest are identified, faculty honestly assert that they are not doing anything wrong. That's really not the point. Rather, the point is that their life/career circumstances are such that an enemy or competitor could "spin" the facts to damage your reputation. As such, when you professional life becomes complex, it is time to be proactive regarding your vulnerability to allegations or real or perceivable bias. A great test for whether your reputation is vulnerable to attack is to honestly and objectively describe the complexity of your career endeavors to a confederate that is capable of providing objective feedback. As you describe the complexity of your work commitments, watch and see if they start to raise their eyebrows. If so, your reputation may be vulnerable to attack. We have all seen an audience react to financial disclosures at the end of a presentation during professional meetings. If the disclosure elicited a reaction from the audience, their circumstances are sufficiently complex that the potential for bias has been perceived by the audience. That being said, the transparency of disclosure has provided the presenter some protection from allegations of bias.
However, confronting potential bias is not always as easy as dealing with overt financial conflicts of interest. It is easy to see how extreme motivators, like large amounts of money, career advancement or fame, could potentiate bias. However, bias potential can be influenced by very subtle motivators as well. I vaguely remember a conversation that I had with a fellow graduate student years ago. He worked in a different research discipline from me and had a healthy competitive relationship with his mentor. His mentor had long asserted and researched a particular neurological cause of fear responses in animals. However, my fellow student was describing to me a competing hypothesis that had recently arisen in the literature. He was very interested in the competing hypothesis because it contradicted his mentor. As such, he was excitedly describing a series of experiments that he was planning to conduct to "prove his mentor wrong." I have no idea what came of his experiments, nor if he was successful in his mission. However, this conversation came to mind as I was contemplating how an agenda for a particular research outcome could influence bias. Could his competition with his mentor have been a sufficient motivator to influence his research? I don't know and we never discussed it. However, knowing his mentor and their competitive relationship, I have no doubt that he would have been required to address any potential bias in his experimental design.
It is critical to be aware of bias potential, regardless of how subtle that potential may be. It only takes a perception of bias to damage one's reputation. During discussions on bias and objectivity, I ask students describe the differences between scandal and research misconduct. It takes a bit of prompting, but I try to get students to realize that a research career can face scandal even if there had not been any wrongdoing. Scandal can easily arise from misunderstanding and/or misinformation. Whereas, a finding of research misconduct is a result of an evidence based investigation. Thus, scandal can arise from perception and gossip and does not depend on facts. Yet scandal, whether fair or unfair could negatively impact one's career. Thus, it is critical for all researchers to be proactive with regard to avoiding scandal. As such, it is critical for all researchers to be proactive with regard acknowledging and managing any potential for bias in their research.
Skepticism is one of a researchers strongest tools to address bias. And with regard to managing real or perceived bias, being skeptical of your own research findings can protect researchers against allegations of bias. Although we have a right to celebrate when we finally get that perfect data, we need to remember that after the celebration, when we return to the lab the next day, it is time to turn that skepticism onto our perfect data and assess whether there is any chance that our preconceptions could have impacted the outcome of the data. It is time to scrutinize data for any signs of bias. If you or your team have any doubts about whether bias may have impacted the results, it is critical to utilize objective eyes or experimental design to assess data for bias. It is easy and important to be skeptical of the work of others, but we need to remember that although it may not be easy, it is more important to be skeptical of our own work.
On one hand, bias is something that we have been trained to address from our first steps of embarking on a research career. Of course we address bias in every experiment that we conduct. However, like all things that become routine in our lives, it is easy to become complacent and thus, convince ourselves that our training and procedures are sufficient to address any concern for bias. We are not doing anything wrong and thus, our reputation is beyond reproach. However, with the growing complexity of academic careers, faculty find themselves working for publically and privately sponsored projects, they are patenting discoveries and starting businesses to assess the marketability of their discoveries and they are doing so in partnership with colleagues, universities and/or private companies. All of these successes are commendable accomplishments and evidence of a productive academic career. However, this complexity creates vulnerability to allegations of bias. Thus, it may not be enough to follow the routine of conducting unbiased research. Rather it becomes critical that you and your team actively engage in protecting your research and your reputations from allegations of bias.
So, in this complex research environment, how do you protect your reputation?
- Recognize that as your career becomes more complex, it is easy for others to perceive that conflicts of interest could contribute bias to your research. It does not matter if your private research/business endeavors are successful. Rather it becomes more important to consider whether your private endeavors could be successful. No one cares about your endeavors until they become successful and then, sadly, success breeds jealousy. Once you are successful, competitors and/or enemies will work to damage your business and potential for bias is an easy target for attack.
- Transparency elicits trust, secrecy elicits suspicion. Be transparent with regard to the complexity of your research and/or business endeavors. Disclose any real or potential conflicts of interest as required by your employers and sponsors, of course. But also disclose potential conflicts of interest to critical colleagues, students and during research presentations. Whenever there are scandalous media reports about conflicts of interest, the stories focus on undisclosed conflicts of interest.
- Document the steps that are taken to protect data from real or perceived bias. It may not be enough to merely do the right thing. At some point, you may be asked to prove that you took steps to protect data. Document that students conducted experiments blind to your expectations. Document that you had colleagues replicate your work to ensure that bias did not impact data. And, if you feel that your circumstances are too complex to effectively control for any possibility that others will perceive your work as biased, utilize third party oversight for data collection, management and analyses.
- Request input from colleagues, supervisors, and/or the Investigator Financial Disclosure Committee (IFDC) regarding your vulnerability to perceptions or allegations of bias and how to go about managing your various conflicting endeavors. It is sometimes difficult to see our vulnerability to scandal from the inside when from our perspective, we are not doing anything wrong. Again, seldom are allegations of bias about wrongdoing. Rather, they are about the perceptions of others. Utilize resources, such as the IFDC, to provide you with guidance on how to protect your reputation and your research from suspicion.
Academic careers are becoming more and more complex, yet most researchers merely want to conduct solid research and contribute to our growing collection of knowledge. We were trained to strive for objectivity and control for bias, but we were never trained to proactively protect ourselves from scandal. Our rapidly evolving academic world is providing exciting and lucrative opportunities for exceptional faculty. However, with these opportunities comes increased vulnerability to scandal. For researchers with complex lives, it may no longer be enough to conduct good research, you may need to document your good practices.
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.