Who will admit to keeping poor records, gifting authorship, or even more obvious forms of misconduct such as plagiarism? Simon Godecharle at University of Leuven and his colleagues asked 2000 scientists from academia and industry in Belgium, and reported their findings in a recent paper for Science and Engineering Ethics. We spoke to Godecharle about the fact that most respondents admitted to engaging in at least one of the 22 items designated as misconduct — and why he thinks people in academia were more likely to ‘fess up than industry scientists.
Retraction Watch: You didn’t limit misconduct to fraud and plagiarism, and instead included problematic behaviors such as cutting corners to save time, gift authorship, and poor record-keeping. Still, you showed that 71% of respondents from academia and 61% of respondents from industry admitted to engaging in at least one of the 22 forms of misconduct. Did those numbers surprise you?
Simon Godecharle: We adapted an original USA survey based on the findings of our previous research, namely a review of the European guidance documents and our qualitative research. Hereby a list of 22 items was generated. We were interested in a broader scope, because previous research indicated that research misconduct and questionable research practices in the daily practice goes far beyond the ‘traditional’ fabrication, falsification and plagiarism.
The reporting of research misconduct we found is similar to previous studies. We were surprised though to find that research misconduct occurs to a substantial amount in industry as well, despite the fact that biomedical research within industry has to uphold to strict rules and regulations. Plagiarism, one of the three ‘capital sins’, is even admitted and observed more in industry compared to universities.
RW: You found that people working in industry were less likely to report misconduct than people working in academia. Do you think that the rate of misconduct is lower in industry, and if so, what factors might be at play? Or, are people in industry simply less forthcoming about misconduct?
SG: Our research indeed does not explain why research misconduct was generally reported less frequently within industry. As stated in our paper, we cannot exclude a selection or a reporting bias. It is possible that research misconduct might actually be less common in industry. However, it is noteworthy to underline that the differences in reporting of some items are small.
Further research might reveal whether a strict setting, with rigorous rules and frequent audits, might indeed diminish or even prevent research misconduct. As an ethicist, I’m inclined to believe that the research culture and the role of the supervisors is vital. If you for example have a policy which requires everyone to follow research integrity training, but the supervisor of the lab stimulates questionable research practices or even research misconduct, the training will have little effect. It also raises the question if the respondents themselves consider the 22 items to be research misconduct. Maybe they consider them more questionable research practices, or even neutral.
RW: Some of the questions are somewhat subjective – such as “Inappropriate or careless review of papers or proposals” or “Inadequate record keeping or data management related to research projects.” Some researchers have higher standards regarding record-keeping than others; the same lab notebook might be rated as sloppy by one but adequate by another. Could that influence your findings?
SG: A self-reporting survey is vulnerable to subjective interpretation. We were interested in the perspectives of the biomedical researchers and research managers themselves, which includes a subjective interpretation. Concerning the admitted behavior, one might even conclude that this approach provides a rather conservative estimate. People might not be (strongly) inclined to consider their behavior to be inadequate or unacceptable. Nonetheless, several actions were admitted to rather frequently, such as ‘gift authorship’ (42% within universities, 25% within industry; p=0.009).
RW: What do your findings say about the prevalence and impact of training in responsible conduct of research?
SG: We need to be prudent about making claims concerning the effect of training based upon our research. We did find a relation between research integrity training and the reporting of research misconduct. When respondents indicated they had received informal research integrity training (for example ‘discussion with instructors, mentors or colleagues’), they reported more research misconduct. Respondents who had received formal research integrity training (‘section on research integrity within other courses’) reported less research misconduct. However, our population was rather small and we only observed some relations, we cannot conclude causal links. In addition, other studies indicate that it remains uncertain whether research integrity training might effectively reduce research misconduct.
RW: The questions rely on responses from scientists based in Belgium who choose to answer questions, and admit to misconduct — do you have any concerns that they aren’t representative of the scientific community as a whole? Why or why not?
SG: We see no reasons why the situation in Belgium would differ from other industrialized Western countries.
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