Fixing Fraud

Tips for preventing research misconduct and maintaining the integrity of your research.

By | March 1, 2009

<figcaption> Credit: Office of Research Integrity / USDHHS</figcaption>
Credit: Office of Research Integrity / USDHHS

In 2007, Steve Erikson, a plant researcher at a large public university in the south, had been working with a PhD student on a project using RNAi to silence endogenous genes and improve the nutritional quality of a particular food crop. Erikson stressed to his student, Adrianne Long (the names have been changed to maintain confidentiality of the case), that she would need to move her samples into FDA-designated containment chambers once they grew into plants, so no transgenic plant DNA could contaminate crops in the regions surrounding the college. Long told Erikson repeatedly over the course of the year that all of her seeds were still in culture, in Petri dishes, and that she had no plants yet.

But at Long's year-end graduate committee meeting, in the fall of that year, she presented data to Erikson and the rest of the committee from full grown transgenic plants. Surprised, Erikson confronted Long, asking her where the plants were—he had certainly not seen them in the designated biocontainment chambers where they should have been. Long refused to tell him. After demanding she produce the plants and move them into biocontainment, Erikson sent his lab manager to look for the plants in greenhouses across campus, where Long had been seen entering and leaving. The lab manager found the plants and immediately moved them into a biocontainment area. Erikson alerted the school and, following an investigation, Long was barred from conducting research at the institution and soon left. The student put "me and my lab in a compromised position," says Erikson, whose lab could have been shuttered for noncompliance with FDA regulations and for putting the neighboring croplands at risk.

In the wake of Long's concealment of her transgenic plants and data, Erikson and his lab have been set back more than a year, trying to validate her data. Long's lab notebook was incomplete in many instances, without vital PCR settings that might help her colleagues recreate her work. While Erikson's career was spared the public flogging that often comes with a paper retraction, he's revamped his rulebook to make sure misconduct doesn't happen in his lab again.

Many labs can inadvertently become breeding grounds for fraud and research misconduct, mostly thanks to lax supervision and high-stress environments. Here are pointers on how to foil, find, and fix misconduct from researchers with first hand knowledge.

12 ways to cultivate a fraud-free lab:

Hold weekly lab meetings. As simple as it sounds, requiring junior investigators to report on their progress each week is a good way to monitor and show your team that you're closely following what they're doing. If you're pressed for time, structure lab meetings with a strict time limit for presentations and question-and-answer periods.

Look at raw data. Although it can be time consuming, each researcher's raw data should be looked over periodically, ideally once a month, says Neal Stewart, professor of plant biology at the University of Tennessee, who teaches a course in proper research conduct. For example, check that junior researchers are conducting all the required controls for each experiment.

Require detail in lab notebooks. In the majority of cases of misconduct or fraud, the researcher didn't keep a detailed lab notebook. Have your researchers keep standard bound lab notebooks with entries of every experimental step including the reasoning behind it, advises David Wright, a researcher at Michigan State and former research integrity officer. "Have them record their thought processes—how they got the results—not just the numbers." If you have extra cash on hand, invest in electronic lab notebooks, which allow you to design a custom data entry template for your whole lab and check in on your researchers' data from your own computer.

Set up a private data server. Stewart has a dedicated server for his lab's data. Anyone can look at anyone else's data at any time, which he hopes discourages tampering with experimental results. Of course, such a system requires proper security with usernames and passwords that are changed regularly and restricted to your lab, says Wright.

Listen. When you ask your students "how are things going?" really listen to their answer. In a study of closed cases from the Office of Research Integrity from last year, Wright and colleagues found that stress was one of the strongest forces that pushed junior researchers to fabricate or make-up data.

Create open channels of communication. Establish early on how issues or conflicts should be discussed or dealt with in the lab, advises Marsha Wagner, ombuds officer for Columbia University in New York. For example, if your lab is large, junior researchers should try to work out issues among themselves first, and then involve a more senior researcher as a sounding board, if necessary, before approaching you. This route of communication may feel safer for younger researchers, who may not feel as comfortable approaching the principal investigator (PI) first.

Create a contract for new hires. Devise a contract based on the National Institutes of Health's partnering agreement which sets ground rules for conduct in research, such as who is responsible for what in which projects, and how disagreements will be dealt with. Discuss the contract with lab members and have them sign the document. Though it sounds formal, it helps bring new employees up to speed on the culture and expectation of your lab. (You can find the NIH 's partnering agreement here: http://tinyurl.com/7v3xo7)

Follow the rules. The PI sets the tone for the lab. Some PIs cancel meetings at the last minute, don't show up at the lab on time, or don't follow human resources guidelines for hiring and firing. "This can inadvertently send a signal that adhering to rules of research ethics isn't important," says Wagner.

Know your limits. Limit travel to once a month, if you can, advises Stewart. A PI's absence opens the door for research misconduct. Also, limit the size of your lab. It's impossible for one PI to do regular checks of too many researchers and too many projects. Each person is different: some may be able to manage a handful of junior researchers effectively, some half a dozen. If you feel comfortable, entrust an upper level postdoc to help with the oversight.

Be fair and professional. Try to stay sensitive to any biased behavior you might display in the lab, such as favoring certain students or researchers. This often creates hostile work environments and can prevent an individual from coming forward about suspicious behavior they might observe, says Bathabile Mthombeni, associate ombuds officer at Columbia University. "Falsification and fraud may grow out of mismanaged competition, or intra-lab conflicts, or personal grievances," says Wagner.

Get social. Encourage your lab members to join research ethics groups on social networking websites like Facebook. Gary Comstock, a philosophy professor at North Carolina State University, set up a group called Open Seminar for Research Ethics, where members can talk about what constitutes fraud or research misconduct with other like-minded researchers around the world.

Get Curious. When students approach you with suspicions or allegations against someone working in your lab, adopt a curious, scientific attitude, says Mthombeni. "When a scientist becomes aware of something [suspicious], it isn't part of the scientific process," to jump to conclusions.

How the experts spot fraud or fabrication

The most useful evidence for investigators looking into cases of fraud is the data, says John Dahlberg, director of investigative oversight the Office of Research Integrity. Of course, if raw data are not available—which sets off a whole series of warning signs—figures can be examined for evidence of manipulation.

Sometimes the same image is altered to appear like two different images in separate papers or grant applications, Dahlberg says. "What really catches a lot of people," is that they put a greater emphasis on the results they fabricate, like a certain band of a western blot, says Dahlberg. "They're not paying attention to things like background spots. Some particular bands have bubbles in them, or tails. There are a lot of signature aspects of a particular image [that] makes it unique," and can expose fraudulent data.

Looking at spreadsheets adapted from raw measurements in lab notebooks can also reveal fudged numbers. Dalhberg suggests looking for numbers that aren't consistently carried out to the same decimal point. Also, the frequency of each particular number in a dataset should be roughly equivalent. A number that appears with greater frequency can "demonstrate that numbers have been fabricated," says Dahlberg.

When to whistleblow?

When fraud is suspected, the person in the most precarious situation is a junior researcher—a grad student or postdoc—in a lab where misconduct might be happening. "If I were a postdoc [in such a situation] I would be frightened," says Linda Wilcox, ombuds officer at Harvard Medical School. Junior investigators "have a lot at risk," she says. "If I suspect a colleague of misconduct, the accusation might mean people would get mad at me if I'm wrong. I might not be listened to if I bring it up to a senior person."

While weighing the risks of becoming a whistleblower, the following tree represents the likely course of events if you do decide to say something to someone.

Comments

March 3, 2009

I am a bit surprised by the flow chart where the recommended route is to immediately go to the institutional ombudsman instead of the PI. As a PI I would want to know if anyone suspected data was being fudged in my lab. After years of preaching "the data is the data" if it wasn't I would want to know and not from someone in the dean's office.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 34

March 18, 2009

I am a junior investigator in a lab where there has been misconduct. It has been brought to the supervisors? attention and they have "given the person a second chance" and nothing has happened to the published paper. I epitomize the example used by Ms. Wilcox, but I and the one conducting misconduct are not trainees! However, in the flow chart I am the one whom has heard things second hand (although there is some really fishy stuff in the paper), and thus I really cannot do anything. If I did do anything I would only jeopardize myself and halt my research to investigate the issue further\n\nOn another point:\nI believe that in many cases the PIs establish an environment where it is perceived that cheating is necessary or OK. I am always distressed when I hear that the problem is the young and that the PI just did not know what was going on. How can a PI be a senior author of a paper if they do not know what is going on? \n
Avatar of: Maria Castro

Maria Castro

Posts: 4

March 18, 2009

I completely agree with the previous comment, as a PI, I am the first person who would want to be made aware that someone in my group might be committing fraud. Also, I am the ultimate responsible for the data that gets published from my team and therefore I would be very receptive to hear any issues in relation to the scientific integrity of the people who work in my lab. Bringing possible data fabrication to the attention of the PI should be the first course of action!
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 3

March 18, 2009

I would like to see a flow chart suggesting action to take if you come across a dodgy-looking figure in a published paper, where you don't know the authors, you have no access to the primary data, and you can't tell which of the authors (if any) is responsible. Should you do nothing, write to the corresponding author, the department head, the ORI, the publisher. What should you do if they don't reply?
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 51

March 19, 2009

Comparing which field of scientific research suffers the most of fraudulent cases within the scientific estabilshment is AN ESSENTIAL step toward knowing the roots of this unethical conduct. Apparently, and unfortunately to say, the area of biomedical research has suffered in past decades so many cases of fraudulent results discovered before publications as well as in many published papers with some sort of falsification of data to reach a certain conclusion and to attract more research funds. It became a common practice to hear about retracted falsified papers in prestigious journals!. Several of these retracted papers either had a renowned scientist (Nobel prize winners included)as a senior author or as a coauthor. It is a pity to note that scientific ethics are often ignored whether at the original steps of doing the research or at writing and reviewing papers before acceptance in publication just because an eminent scientist has his/her name on the research.Reading the many commentaries on ISI reports of papers that became CITATION CLASSIC (See ISI Eugene Garfield stories in Current Contents)is indeed interesting to find out untold stories behind these classic papers. In some of these Citation Classic papers, the authors recount the many problems and obstacles they had faced in doing that research and in getting their breakthrough findings published.In many of these classic papers, the main players were junior researchers as graduate students and postdocs.
Avatar of: Jerry Cook

Jerry Cook

Posts: 2

May 1, 2009

A "don't ask - don't tell" policy appears to be in effect within the Division of Investigative Oversight at ORI. In refusing to investigate the inclusion of well-documented false information in National Toxicology Program Technical Report 494, the director of the Division of Investigative Oversight stated. "Our role is limited by departmental policy to conducting oversight review of investigations conducted by the institutions where the alleged misconduct took place." There is no indication that ORI has any interest in taking corrective action of any kind when provided with unambiguous documentation that misconduct has occurred within NTP resulting in publication of materially false information in NTP Technical Report 494.\n\nIt appears that institutions that conduct deficient or ineffectual investigations of allegations of scientific misconduct will not suffer any adverse consequences at the hands of ORI. On the other hand, institutions that are diligent in upholding the highest research integrity standards might suffer loss of prestige, and possibly loss of future NIH grants, based upon the findings of misconduct they report to ORI.\n\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 3

July 15, 2009

I am amazed at the data in the pie charts above, but this is to be expected if science is viewed as a fashionable fad activity, with monetary gains and an Olympic sport.\n\nDriven by funding needs, flimsy career objectives, questionable criteria for reproducibility if any at all, commercialization of Journals where Papers published are "Advertisement", no need to submit RAW Data, ... etc.
Avatar of: Fred Schaufele

Fred Schaufele

Posts: 52

December 29, 2009

In response to the previously posted question about what to do when you spot something odd in a publication: Contact the editor of the journal in which the suspect data was published. A surprisingly large number of irregularities are detected by eagle-eye readers.\n\nEach journal will have different steps to deal with your allegation/question, but it is within the journal's interest to start/finish the process in response to your question. Provide the journal with specific information about why the data is odd (same figure you have seen in a different publication, duplicative figures claiming to show different results, etc). Your job of reporting your concerns is now finished.\n\nOnce informed, the journal typically may ask the author about the allegations. If the journal does not receive a satisfactory answer, the journal will follow that up by forwarding the information to the institution's board. Once you have reported the irregulaty, do not expect an instant retraction. The above process can take time and, if the institution drags its feet (which sometimes happens), then national investigative organizations may need to become involved.\n\nIf your allegations involve specific information that is not data-based, then you should be following the steps in the flow chart that lead directly to an institutional review. i.e., if your suspicions based on personal observations that need direct evaluation, your comments are material to the review that will be conducted by the institution or other body. The key here to recognize that the journals themselves typically will not be the investigative body. They do not have the personnel resources. There also are personal liability and conflict of interest issues to contend with. So the journals tend to rely on the findings of the independent institutional or national review.\n
Avatar of: Alan Price

Alan Price

Posts: 14

December 29, 2009

Nice piece again by Andrea for The Scientist.\n\nI have given many talks as a consultant on such issues, with real ORI cases cited -- see two videos posted recently\n\n\npediatric grand rounds - "ORI Clinical Misconduct Cases including plagiarism"\n\nhttp://imediasrv.archildrens.org/mediasite5/Viewer/?peid=390856be03c44f36ac6264d006e9fd7d\n\n \nand \n\nfaculty development seminar "ORI Major Misconduct Cases and Prevention Tips"\n\nhttp://imediasrv.archildrens.org/mediasite5/Viewer/?peid=7ee900a57ac641b68163f58364bdff53\n\nbest\n\nAlan Price \n
Avatar of: Tarakad Raman

Tarakad Raman

Posts: 31

January 1, 2010

Current practice in modern R&D labs is apparently to avoid paper notebooks by putting all lab notes and raw data into computers which are kept in each lab and connected through a network. Even the rationale used by scientists in planning their experiments is similarly recorded. All entries are instantly accessible by other researchers on the network. If any alteration is made, the original entries are not deleted but are still available. Fudging of data is, therefore, virtually impossible. An important benefit is the instant communication made possible among scientists, which will help in avoiding work duplications. Also, futile repetition of research methodology or strategies that others have tried and abandoned becomes less likely.

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