It’s not just individual researchers who need to support scientific integrity. Institutions and environments also play important roles, says a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.1 The report, Fostering Integrity in Research, says that detrimental research practices should be understood to include not only actions of individual researchers, but also irresponsible actions by research institutions and journals.

The report recommends the following:

  • research institutions go beyond simple compliance with federal regulations;
  • senior leaders at each institution — the president, other senior executives, and faculty leaders — should be actively engaged in these tasks;
  • whistleblowers who raise concerns about the integrity of research are protected, and their concerns addressed in a fair, thorough, and timely manner;
  • institutions encourage routine disclosure of all results, including negative findings.

C.K. Gunsalus, a member of the committee which developed the report, doesn’t expect any of these recommendations to elicit controversy. “The recommendations are generally evidence-based and make sense in the environments in which we operate,” she says.

Gunsalus, director of the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, adds, “The central observation that we must look at environments as well as people, and assess them, is a central finding I hope gets traction.”

The report recommends that a Research Integrity Advisory Board be established. Gunsalus says this will take time and work to accomplish. “It’s been recommended before, and has so much to offer. I hope that it gets off the ground this time,” she says.

The report notes that no such platform exists currently to foster research integrity at a national level. Barbara Redman, PhD, RN, an associate of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU School of Medicine, says, “I am hopeful that this time, such a board will be established, and can vigorously work through current problems with research integrity.”

More information is needed on environmental pressures that could lead to detrimental research practices. “We have to learn more, and apply what we learn to improving the ‘nudges’ our environments provide to make good choices,” Gunsalus says.

Redman, an external reviewer for the report, notes that the current situation is referred to as “a serious threat” to the scientific enterprise. “I was heartened to see the scientific community coming to grips with its problems in quality of science,” Redman says. However, she says, there is a “long road of work ahead” to determine the following:

  • the level of reproducibility that should be expected;
  • how common standards of quality can be extended across the commercial and academic settings, regardless of funding source;
  • whether it’s misguided to believe that whistleblowers are sufficient to detect research misconduct despite strong incentives against speaking out;
  • how research integrity requires reforms across the entire system of science (institutions, publishers, funders, as well as individual scientists);
  • the degree to which science can be self-correcting, or requires different or more rigorous regulation.

“It is important to note that this is an international problem,” says Redman. “Countries vary widely regarding the attention they are giving to the cluster of issues under the umbrella of research integrity.”

Zubin Master, PhD, associate professor at Albany (NY) Medical College’s Alden March Bioethics Institute, says the old way of thinking is that a morally corrupt individual was solely to blame for research misconduct such as fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism.

“People have now started to move away from that,” says Master. “Of course the individual has responsibility, but research institutions are also accountable.” In Master’s view, this includes not just the academic institutions where the researchers are actually housed, but also major research funders like the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“The institutions to some degree are influencing the research environment and how scientists conduct their business,” says Master. “They are either promoting, or not, a culture of research integrity.”

Many researchers are under a great deal of pressure to secure external grant funding to pay part or all of their salaries. Research institutions benefit from the indirect costs from these grants — and from cheaper trainee labor. “We are in a hypercompetitive environment. Trainees find it difficult to find faculty appointments, and scientists have a very low success of getting NIH grants right now,” Master explains.

Many research institutions have had recent scandals involving research misconduct, with considerable repercussions including damaged reputations.

“Some research institutions are very good at handling issues, while others are not,” says Master. Some take action only after a particularly egregious incident gets headlines. “They don’t want embarrassment. The typical approach has been to eject the bad apple — firing or severely reprimanding the researcher,” says Master.

Institutions historically have lacked well-studied tools to assess the research environment. A recently developed tool, the Survey of Organizational Research Climate (SORC), evaluates researchers’ views on a range of issues involving their institutional climate.2

While SORC is a relatively new tool, says Gunsalus, “it’s been used at a number of large universities across the U.S., including several Big 10 universities, and in a nationwide study in the VA research service.”

It’s problematic that some institutions provide minimal education on research integrity, says Master. “We need to shift our mentality away from compliance, and actually promote a culture of research integrity,” he says.

Other institutions invest a great deal of educational resources in the hopes of preventing misconduct. “Whether education influences ethical behavior, we really don’t know,” says Master. “The instruments to actually test whether people are behaving ethically are only also starting to be built and used.”

In his own research, Master is focusing on the effect authorship misallocation has on other, possibly more egregious, research misbehaviors. “In the work we’ve done, we’re seeing that authorship might have a bigger impact than we realized. People who were slighted when it came to authorship may be more inclined to cut corners or seek retribution in the future,” says Master.

Master says that much more information is needed. While the NIH funds bioethics research involving human subjects or genomics, there is no dedicated funding available for studies looking at the research integrity climate.

“The NIH should be funding research on research integrity,” says Master. “They don’t have any funding devoted to that, and they should make such funding available for this important research.”

REFERENCES

  1. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Fostering Integrity in Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2017.
  2. Martinson BC, Thrush CR, Crain AL. Development and Validation of the Survey of Organizational Research Climate Development (SORC). Sci Eng Ethic. 2013; 19(3):813–834.