“Research misconduct represents clear and present dangers to academic institutions and their faculty, residents, students, and staff,” declared the authors of a review published in the American Journal of Medicine.1 The review, authored by thought leaders from Florida Atlantic University and the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine & Public Health, discussed the consequences of research misconduct and outlined means of safeguarding integrity at academic institutions.

Research misconduct includes any falsification, manipulation, or plagiarism of data, as well as any attempts to reshape or withhold less favorable analyses. Study data published in Science in 2018 indicate a steady increase in the number of manuscripts retracted from journals due to misconduct investigations.2 In 2019, Duke University paid $112 million to settle a whistleblower lawsuit, which alleged that a research technician had falsified data.3 The “Darsee affair”—in which a cardiology fellow was caught having falsified data over a 14-year period—resulted in the retraction of 82 manuscripts.4 The authors of the current review emphasized that, beyond financial consequences, research misconduct may perpetuate false or harmful data, jeopardize human and animal subject safety, and pose environmental hazards. They also noted that research misconduct erodes public trust in academic institutions and compromises the aim toward integrity that is shared by a majority of researchers.” Authors of the review underscored the value of collaboration between and within academic institution, as well as vigilance from individual scientists.

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Academic institutions must invest in research integrity, the authors wrote, by codifying clear research compliance rules and implementing a quality assurance plan. The authors endorsed the use of independent experts to conduct periodic reviews of institutional research. Validated tools such as the Survey of Organizational Research Climate may be employed to reinforce regulatory policies and educate staff. Hiring personnel with expertise in research processes also may safeguard academic institutions against misconduct. These personnel may include members of the Institutional Review Boards, the Environmental Health and Safety Boards, and the Offices of Research Integrity.

The Offices of Research Integrity are also important for maintaining transparency about potential conflicts of interest; physicians must be made to disclose any payments made to them by drug companies. Institutions also may implement laboratory-level interventions that focus on investigators, faculty, and trainees. Incentivizing compliance and endorsing transparent mentor-mentee relationships may help to ensure appropriate conduct within the laboratory.

Beyond institution-level protections, investigators and scientists must self-regulate, the review authors wrote. A culture of accountability can protect against research misconduct, as can rigorous policies implemented at the institution level. The common goal for academic institutions should be to maintain public trust in research, the authors wrote, requiring full commitment to research integrity.  

Disclosure: Several study authors declared affiliations with the pharmaceutical industry. Please see the original reference for a full list of authors’ disclosures.

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References

1. Robishaw JD, DeMets DL, Wood SK, Boiselle PM, Hennekens CH. Establishing and maintaining research integrity at academic institutions: challenges and opportunities [published online September 11, 2019]. Am J Med. doi: 10.1016/j.amjmed.2019.08.036

2. Brainerd J. Rethinking retractions. Science. 2018;362:390-393.

3. DeMets DL, Fleming TR, Geller G, Ransohoff DF. Institutional responsibility and the flawed genomic biomarkers at Duke University: a missed opportunity for transparency and accountability. Sci Eng Ethics. 2017;23(4):1199-1205.

4. Relman AS. Lessons from the Darsee affair. N Engl J Med. 1983; 308:1415-1417.

This article originally appeared on Medical Bag