Are current classification systems for research misconduct adequate? Toshio Kuroki — special advisor to the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo and Gifu University — thinks the answer is no. In a new paper in Accountability in Research, Kuroki — who has published on research misconduct before — suggests a new classification system. We asked him a few questions about his proposal. The answers are lightly edited for clarity.
Retraction Watch (RW): Why did you feel that a new classification of misconduct was necessary?
Toshio Kuroki (TK): The STAP affair, starring Haruko Obokata, was my inspiration to become a “misconductologist.” In 2016, I published a book in Japanese on research misconduct for the general public.
The Japanese version — which is now being translated into English for publication by Oxford University Press — included the classical classification of fabrication, falsification and plagiarism (FFP) and questionable research practices (QRP). However, the FFP/QRP classification was not quite right to me. It seems too simple, placing one-dimensionally, or linearly, responsible conduct of Research (RCR)-QRP-FFP on a line moving from white (RCR) to grey (QRP) and finally black (FFP).
In other words, the classical classification emphasizes FFP without distinguishing between betrayal of the truth — fabrication and falsification and trust — plagiarism — while de-emphasizing QRP. QRP covers many types of inappropriate behavior, but not all are necessarily clearly defined. Some of QRPs are truly inadequate actions, more than just “questionable.”
In writing the Oxford University Press version of the book, I conceived of a new classification that takes into account the outcomes of misconduct, while reflecting the core values of truth, trust and risk in a more tangible fashion. Under this classification, various kinds of fraudulent behavior can be understood in two or three dimensions, or non-linearly.
To be honest, I was reluctant to publish the new classification, because it challenges the global standard of classification, which was established after several revisions starting with proposals in the latter half of the 20th century. However, the editor of Accountability in Research kindly accepted and published after revision.
RW: Please explain the three categories, and what goes into them.
TK: The proposed classification includes three classes of misconduct, depending on whether the case reflects betrayal of the truth, of trust, or risk to safety. Each class is further classified under subheadings.
“Class I Misconduct: Betrayal of truth” includes fabrication and falsification, which I consider to be extreme misconduct betraying the truth of nature.
“Class II Misconduct: Betrayal of trust” includes three subcategories, i.e. plagiarism, irreproducibility and inadequate research practice.
- Plagiarism is serious misbehavior and common, from student reports to dissertations. It betrays trust in science, rather than the truth of nature.
- Irreproducibility is also increases the risk that the public will lose trust in science, but in the classification it is merely included as a QRPs. In the proposed classification, irreproducibility is rated as equally serious to plagiarism, regardless of intent.
- The inadequate practice of research prevails in the scientific community. It includes a large variety of fraudulent practice such as ghost authorship, gift authorship, concealing inconvenient data, duplicate publication, and fake peer review. However, some behavior such as harassment is not necessarily directly related to research misconduct, but is obviously violates research integrity.
“Class III Misconduct: Risk to safety” takes social influences into account, although it is not particularly included in the classic classification. Among many undesirable outcomes, risk to the safety of health and industrial products are most serious.
- Risk to safety of health is the most obvious and worst outcome resulting from betrayal of truth and trust.
- Risk to the safety of industrial products should also be taken seriously. If unqualified products are supplied to markets, they will cause risk in our daily lives. Typical examples include Volkswagen’s fraud involving emissions by diesel engines, and lack of oversight of anti-seismic devices used in many buildings, including hospitals and fire stations, in Japan.
RW: Is the idea that a given act could be two or even three categories at once?
TK: Under some circumstances, acts that betray truth or trust that caused risks to the public should require notification.
Class III is a sort of an optional category of misconduct. If the primary misconduct in terms of betrayal of truth or trust is known, such misconduct can be classified into two or three categories at once. However, there is not much transparency about most misconduct that takes place in industry, and investigation reports are not available. Such cases are solely categorized as Class III misconduct.
Collectively, Class III misconduct is an additional or optional category set up to notify the public of possible risks to their lives.
RW: Should sanctions for some classifications be more severe than for others?
TK: I am concerned that sanctions for misconduct have not been well defined and are ambiguous in terms of assessment of culpability, inequitable judgement, retroactive determination and so on.
I am also aware of the fact that FFP is often the only form of misconduct that is subject to punishment or administrative action, while QRP seems to be underestimated and even sometimes overlooked. The proposed classification would facilitate more tailored analyses and application of appropriate corrective actions in accordance with the level of classification.
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