A report on the first few years of “researcher rehab” suggests that three days of intensive training have a lasting impact on participants.
Specifically, among participants — all of whom had been found guilty of at least one type of misconduct — the authors report that:
A year later, follow-up surveys indicate that the vast majority have changed how they work.
The authors claim this shows the program is worth the time and investment — a $500,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, and a cost of $3,000 per participant for the three-day course. Do you agree? Tell us what you think in our poll at the end of the story.
Infractions ranged from consent issues for human subjects, plagiarism, and outright fraud. Still, researchers who need this training aren’t much different from everyone else, the authors note in “Lessons of researcher rehab,” published today by Nature:
We have now trained 39 researchers from 24 institutions. Researchers in our programme do not display personality traits that are distinct from the general population of scientists. We believe that most researchers may be susceptible, and that the busiest ones are most likely to err.
Half of participants in the program — initially called RePAIR, now dubbed the Professionalism and Integrity Program, or PI Program — had enrolled because of “failure to provide oversight, leading to problems,” the authors note:
Three causes played a part in most cases: paying too little attention to details or oversight; being unsure about relevant rules; and not prioritizing compliance. All these could be attributed to other, more basic causes. For example, many participants provided too little oversight of their teams because they were overextended or understaffed. People sometimes were unsure of rules after moving into a new area of research. They also encountered regulations that had grown more complex since they completed their training.
None were serious cases, they add:
There are high-profile cases of serial fraudsters who have consciously built their careers on fabricated data and who, some research suggests, have personality disorders. We do not encounter such individuals in our programme. In general, we work with talented faculty members who seek to do good research and whom institutions wish to retain.
The project has revealed some “myths” about misconduct, according to James M. DuBois at Washington University in St. Louis and his colleagues — namely, that “only bad apples get in trouble:”
…participants’ infractions rarely resulted from a conscious intent to mislead or break rules.
Another myth: “the more publications and grants the better:”
By the metrics that institutions use to reward success, our programme participants were highly successful researchers; they had received many grants and published many papers. Yet, becoming overextended was a common reason why they failed to adequately oversee research. It may also have led them to make compliance a low priority. People who are too busy must triage, and what scientist wants to prioritize checking patient signatures above data gathering?
Principal investigators should protect themselves and their labs by taking on no more projects than they can responsibly oversee and adequately staff.
In all, DuBois and his co-authors argue the program is worth the time and investment in the program:
Following the workshop, our participants demonstrate more positive attitudes toward compliance, improved problem-solving skills and better lab-management habits…In our view, intense, individualized training following a breach can be remarkably effective. And it is unquestionably much more cost efficient than letting problems fester until even bigger problems arise for investigators and institutions. Our participants have gone from analysing their own lapses to customizing solutions, such as holding more face-to-face meetings or developing [standard operating procedures].
Do you agree with the authors? In 2013, after the program began, we ran a poll asking that question, and one-third of readers told us they didn’t believe researchers found guilty of misconduct can be rehabilitated (and posted nearly 90 comments in response). Now that the first results are out, we’re asking the question again. Tell us what you think, below.
Update: 6/8/16 2:31 p.m. eastern: We heard from Donald Kornfeld at Columbia University, who noted that — as the authors say — this program did not include researchers evaluated for serious offenses, such as those sanctioned by the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI):
If this program is limited to individuals who have either committed plagiarism or failed to follow various Regulations re animal welfare and informed consent, they are not working with the 88% of individuals found guilty of research misconduct annually by ORI. Over the ten years I studied ORI Reports, only 12% of guilty offenders were guilty of plagiarism; 45% were guilty of fabrication and 66% of falsification.
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