ORI Introduction to RCR
It is not easy to go through life doing -everything we must or should do all of the time. It should therefore come as no surprise that in many small and some significant ways, researchers do not always follow the rules of the road for responsible conduct in research. They roll through stop signs when they clean up their data more than they should, accept honorary authorship, purchase something with grant funds that is not strictly allowed, or give colleagues more favorable reviews than they deserve. From time to time, they drive faster than the posted speeds to arrive at their destination—a grant, a publication, new knowledge—a little more quickly.
We ignore musts and shoulds in life for different reasons. For one, society sends mixed messages about obeying rules. Should you turn in someone for cheating or “mind your own business”? Rules also can conflict with one another. Should you report misconduct if doing so puts your career at risk? And finally, we are amazingly adept at “bending” or “stretching” the rules by thinking up good reasons why a questionable course of action is acceptable under a particular set of circumstances, that is, at justifying our actions, whatever they are.
The ease with which rules can be bent or ignored is particularly evident early in the career track the majority of researchers traditionally follows. Studies consistently suggest that well over half and probably closer to three-quarters of college students cheat during their undergraduateyears. In two separate studies, 1 in 10 research trainees reported a willingness to break the rules to get grants funded or papers published. Roughly the same number of students applying for research fellowships and residencies in medicine significantly misrepresents their research publications on résumés, as confirmed in studies conducted in six medical specialties. Presumably most individuals who cheat or inflate résumés know that it is wrong to do so, but they nonetheless find reason for engaging in these practices.
The same patterns of behavior can easily spill over into other aspects of research. The pressures that prompt students to bend or ignore the rules do not disappear after graduation. Getting into good schools is replaced by getting a good job and promotions. Competition for grades is replaced by competition to get funded and published. Too little time to study for tests is replaced by too little time to teach, mentor, provide service, and do research. The stakes may even increase later in careers, as family responsibilities are added into the mix and personal ambitions grow, making it even easier to put more pressure on the accelerator to get to your destination a little faster.
There are many quick-and-easy reasons that can be called up to justify bending or ignoring some of the rules of the road for responsible research:
- I already have enough information to know what the results will be, so there is no need to run the controls again, even though they did not give me the expected results the first time.
- No one funds truly exploratory research, so the only way to test new ideas is to use funds from an existing grant, even though these funds are for other work.
- If my bosses read my research papers rather than counting them, I wouldn’t have to publish the same research twice or chop it up into small, insignificant pieces.
- Given the competition in this field, you cut your own throat if you share your methods and information with colleagues too freely.
- They will cut off my funds if I report these results, so for the good of my laboratory and staff I should sit on them for a while longer.
- I know my research is not going to harm anyone, so why waste my time and the time of the IRB getting permission.
Rules are not always reasonable or rationally applied. Life and colleagues are not always fair. Good guys do sometimes seem to come in last.
However, the problem with quick-and-easy justifications and catchy phrases is they fail to take into consideration the larger consequences of our actions. What would happen if everyone decided, for one “good” reason or another, to run stop signs, drive on the wrong side of the road, or ignore the speed limit? Obviously, chaos would quickly ensue and driving would no longer be safe (or become even more hazardous than it is already). The same would be true of research if researchers routinely ignored responsible research practices and did what they thought was necessary simply to achieve some end, whether the discovery of truth, the development of something useful, or personal success.
As stated at the beginning of the ORI Introduction to RCR, there is no one best way to undertake research, no universal method that applies to all scientific investigations. Accepted practices for the responsible conduct of research can and do vary from discipline to discipline and even laboratory to laboratory. There are, however, some important shared values for the responsible conduct of research that bind all researchers together, including honesty, accuracy, efficiency, and objectivity. There are no excuses for compromising these values. Their central role in research is the responsibility of each and every researcher. Drive safely and be a responsible researcher.