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RCR Casebook: Research Misconduct

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Although there are many forms of wrongdoing in research,15 only three fall within the federal definition of “research misconduct”: Falsification, fabrication, and plagiarism—commonly known as “FFP”. Federal regulations define the essential elements of FFP in the following manner:

  • Fabrication is making up data or results and recording or reporting them.
  • Falsification is manipulating research materials, equipment, or processes, or changing or omitting data or results such that the research is not accurately represented in the research record.
  • Plagiarism is the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit. (45 CFR 93.103)

When FFP occurs in federally funded research (including in proposals for research grants), it is a federal crime that can be punished severely with fines, loss of funding eligibility, and even imprisonment.9,16

Instances of research misconduct continue to receive public attention and scrutiny as researchers who act dishonestly may harm the public’s health and safety, waste public funds, compromise the integrity of the research process, and distort the research record.13 Even when journals publish retractions that correct the scientific record, the impact of FFP is sometimes extensive and difficult to undo. Consider, for example, how many people still appear to believe that vaccines are linked to the development of autism in children—despite the fact that the data supporting the link were fabricated and retractions were published.17

Fortunately, multiple surveys indicate that the vast majority of researchers (approximately 98%) never engage in research misconduct.18 However, as a 2008 article points out, given how much research the government funds, if only 1.5% of NIH-funded researchers engaged in FFP, it would amount to 2,325 cases per year in the US alone.19 Thus, it is not surprising that in one survey of more than 2,000 NIH-funded researchers, 23% had at some point suspected a colleague of FFP.20

While FFP may not seem like a complex issue—even children in kindergarten know it is wrong to lie (fabricate or falsify) and steal (plagiarize)—dealing with suspected instances of FFP within one’s own lab or department can be complex.

The Cases and Role Play

The cases and role play in this chapter provide an opportunity to apply federal regulatory requirements to cases, and to navigate the difficult situations that arise when co-workers—subordinates and superiors—appear to engage in FFP.

  • Case One: A professor who runs a laboratory is concerned about the work of her lab technician; she suspects that the technician is falsifying data.
  • Case Two: A mentor is faced with a doctoral student who misunderstands the U.S. cultural norms regarding appropriately acknowledging the words and ideas of others.
  • Case Three: A junior clinical researcher developing a complex protocol that may propel his career as an academic researcher decides to share it with his new advisor only to find out later that the advisor may have stolen his idea.
  • Case Four: A former PhD student performs poorly in a lab and doesn’t respond well to authority, creating a threatening situation for the associate professor who took him on.
  • Role Play: A senior doctoral student who is helping his mentor put together a grant proposal is concerned that data he generated in the lab have been altered to better fit his mentor’s hypothesis.