Misconduct investigation reports are uneven at best. Here’s how to make them better.

Retraction Watch readers may have noticed that over the past year or so, we have been making an effort to obtain and publish reports about institutional investigations into misconduct. That’s led to posts such as one about a case at the University of Colorado, Denver, one about the case of Frank Sauer, formerly of the University of California, Riverside, and this story on a case out of the University of Florida.

We’ve obtained the dozen-plus reports we’ve published so far by a variety of means, from public records requests to court documents to old-fashioned leaks. Reading these reports confirms what others — including the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. National Science Foundation — have found. Namely, the reports — which are subject to an inherent conflict of interest, given that institutions are investigating their own — are uneven at best.

We’d like to do something about that.

Today, Adam Marcus and I, along with C.K. Gunsalus of the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, have published a Viewpoint in JAMA describing a checklist for such reports, along with a call for publishing more of them. The checklist includes items such as:

  • Did the investigating committee ask the right questions?
  • Did they interview the right people?
  • Do the findings support the conclusions?

The checklist and Viewpoint are the result of a deep dive into the issue by a group of experts we convened in December. As we note in the piece, that group — which gave generously of their time — included “a former university provost and president, other institutional leaders, federal officials, researchers, a journal editor, journalists, [National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine] panel participants, and attorneys representing respondents,whistleblowers, and institutions.”

In a comment on one our posts, Richard Smith, the former editor in chief of the BMJ (and a member of the board of directors of our parent non-profit organization) calls publishing such investigation reports “a good idea.”

They should surely all be published: justice must not only be done it must be seen to be done…We need to achieve a world where universities can have no confidence that reports will remain buried.

Help us achieve that world. Have a report to share? Feel free to send it anonymously and confidentially to team@retractionwatch.com. (Or, since universities sometimes charge to fulfill public records requests, make a tax-deductible donation to our parent non-profit.) And please comment on how we can improve the checklist.

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5 thoughts on “Misconduct investigation reports are uneven at best. Here’s how to make them better.”

  1. NSF makes available Case Closeout Memoranda for anyone; see https://www.nsf.gov/oig/case-closeout.jsp (a short introduction to the collection) and https://www.nsf.gov/oig/case-closeout/ (the actual closeout memoranda closeout decisions).

    It covers about 30 categories, such as
    – Admin. Financial Violations (PI/PS)
    -Applicant/Grantee/PI False Certification
    – COI (NSF)
    – Contractor Fraud
    – Data Sharing
    – Fabrication of Substance in Prosal
    – Falsification in Proposal/Progress Rpt
    and so on.


    1. Thanks, Ken. We are of course aware of these, but a) these are executive summaries (at most), not the full reports and b) they are anonymous. They don’t provide the information we need to judge the adequacy of an investigation.

  2. The question of how universities deal with research misconduct is extremely broad and ripe for missteps, especially in the case of public research universities. Many, if not most, such institutions follow federal guidelines on how to handle such accusations and subsequent investigations. And within those guidelines is the mandate that all such information about research misconduct investigations must remain confidential during that process.
    Only when there is a determination of actual misconduct can the institution divulge information on the case. This insures due process and protection for those investigators found not to have committed research misconduct, in hopes of protecting individual researchers’ reputations. In the case where misconduct has taken place, the institution can release its findings if it so decides.
    But there is no requirement that they do so other than to inform the appropriate agencies affected. In reality, few institutions publicly acknowledge that research misconduct has occurred and when they do, that information is released begrudgingly. Institutions, often at the urgings of their legal staff, will release misconduct case information only when faced with Freedom of Information Act (FOIa) requests, or those filed under state public records laws.
    The mindset is that acknowledging that misconduct has occurred on campus will taint the institution’s reputation. In fact, the opposite is true – divulging such information readily and without opposition supports the view that the institution is a responsible steward of its activities, that it can be seen as capable of self-policing on behalf of the public good. The more transparent its actions appear, the more ready the public is to have confidence in its integrity. Public support wanes quickly in the face of stonewalling or obfuscation.
    Faced with the conclusion that an investigator has committed research misconduct, his/her institution should be the first to acknowledge that, offering adequate information and details about the investigations, infractions and consequences. It’s not enough to simply respond to FOIa or public records requests – institutions should release misconduct information initially as part of their communications efforts with the public.
    Misconduct investigation findings routinely require concurrence by senior institutional officials and at that point, a news release should be prepared announcing the findings, outlining the details of the case, and what, if any, actions the institution might take to prevent such episodes in the future. Copies of applicable reports should be made available on request or posted online for easy access. The institution should never be seen as attempting to block or obscure misconduct information.
    Now retired, my files contain dozens of such releases I did explaining the facts of such cases at my institution, documents prepared at the conclusion of investigations and ready for release to the public and the news media. Sadly, only a portion of those ever became public. Advice from legal counsel argued against release in some cases. In others, fear of damaging the institution’s reputation precluded release. And a frequent lack of inquires from the news media reinforced the opinion of some in leadership that such misconduct “was not news.”
    The ideal outcome, in my opinion, would be an institution willingly releasing any and all appropriate information and documents concerning research misconduct investigations that proved true. This would be driven by a true partnership between research administrators, research integrity officers, legal counsel and public information officers who are knowledgeable about the research process. Mutual trust and respect among these parties, with a shared agenda of releasing appropriate information, creates a system whereby the public is served, investigators are treated fairly, and the institution’s reputation is preserved.

  3. Richard Smith, as ever, hits the nail on the head.
    The one point I take issue with is that all investigations are intramural. This is very usual in science and in university affairs. After all one reason we have external examiners is to ensure standards are maintained and to avoid corruption. It would seen sensible for the data assembled by the university to be reviewed by externals, who may request further information pertaining to the case from the university.

  4. In contrast, ORI,with a similar responsibility for NIH, has the authority/responsibility for:”Reviewing and monitoring research misconduct investigations conducted by applicant and awardee institutions, intramural research programs, and the Office of Inspector General in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)”.
    Thus the requisite external review called for above.

    Don Kornfeld

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