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Reforming Research Cheats

A new ethics course aims to rehabilitate scientists found guilty of misconduct so they can return to the field as productive researchers.
 

By | January 9, 2013

WIKIMEDIA, KEITH BURTIS

What should happen to scientists found guilty of research misconduct? They are often banned from receiving government funding for a period and sometimes fired from their university positions, but what then? According to one ethicist, rehabilitation is an option.

Incidences of fraud and fabrication, or at least the number of scientists that get caught for such offenses, are on the rise. The Office of Research Integrity (ORI) received 419 accusations in 2012, almost double the number they received the year before, the agency’s director David Wright told Nature. Plenty of ink is spilled on the details of the cases, but there is little focus on how to deal with the guilty scientists.

That’s why James DuBois, an ethicist at St. Louis University, has setup a rehab program called RePAIR (Restoring Professionalism and Integrity in Research), which offers ethics training in an attempt to reform offenders. “Sometimes these are very talented researchers,” DuBois told Nature. “We believe that if we can equip them with certain skills, they can return to the field as very productive individuals.”

Developed with a grant of $500,000 from the National Institutes of Health, the 3-day course first focuses on “self-serving biases” and what led the participants to breach ethical practices. Then it gets participants to discuss their transgressions and ways they can promote ethical decision making in future. Finally, management plans are drawn up to prevent the researchers falling back into old habits, including follow-up meetings with the RePAIR team after the course to check on progress. If the course is completed properly, participants receive a certificate from RePAIR.

Some are not completely convinced, however. Nicholas Steneck, an ethicist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who is broadly supportive of RePAIR’s objectives, told Nature that he wonders if the money might be better spent on measures that prevent misconduct in the first place.

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Avatar of: RobertE

RobertE

Posts: 12

January 9, 2013

Why bother? It's not as if we are short of scientists. These are people who have demonstrated they do not care for the ethics of the community and that they will do anything to advance themselves, including faking data. This strikes at the very heart of the scientific system because it destroys trust. Hypotheses are made and experiments are designed under the assumption that what is presented in the literature is true. If the literature is wrong, then others can either miss the truth or, more likely, follow a blind alley. People guilty of fraud should be banned for life.

Avatar of: Paul Stein

Paul Stein

Posts: 109

January 9, 2013

RobertE does have a good point.

Also, I'm with Nicholas Steneck.  What about educating all of those "mentors" who did such an inexcusably poor job of preparing their charges for the real world?

Avatar of: James DuBois

James DuBois

Posts: 1

January 9, 2013

I would like to take the opportunity to clarify that the RePAIR Program's seminar on Professionalism and Integrity is not just for those who engaged in research misconduct (falsification, fabrication, and plagiarism), but also for talented researchers who have run into repeated compliance problems. I make a case for training at the ORI blog:

http://ori.hhs.gov/blog/why-remediate-researchers-response-concerns

I would also note that prevention programs are not an alternative; rather, our program picks up when prevention has not worked. I would further note that many prevention program do not work. For example, there is no evidence that widely mandated training programs improve behavior.

http://www.slu.edu/repair/news/rcr_instruction.html

We may still have an obligation to offer such training--to clarify rules, to create a climate with knowledgeable researchers, etc--but the reasons for noncompliance are complex and are often difficult to address prospectively.

I believe that as we better understand the individual and environmental factors that contribute to noncompliance or outright wrongdoing, we will get better at designing prevention programs. But the need for remediation programs will never wholly disappear.

I would also like to acknowledge that the program has its origins in an NIH supplement award to the Washington University Institute for Clinical and Translational Science. Both Saint Louis University and Washington University have been great supporters of this program.

For more information on the program, visit www.repairprogram.org.

James DuBois

Director of the RePAIR Program

Avatar of: FJScientist

FJScientist

Posts: 24

January 9, 2013

Training is best focussed for preventing ethical transgressions from happening in the first place. If a scientist willfully pollutes the scientific record with damaging, self-serving, purposeful lies, it is too late. If they have received funding for that fraud, I am still mystified as to why the granting agency does not seek to recoup their costs in court. Now, someone suggests we further train them on something that is obvious to any scientist with half a brain on their shoulders?  

Avatar of: T S Raman

T S Raman

Posts: 22

January 9, 2013

Previous investigations of fraud in science have revealed: (1) that in most cases the erring scientist was held in high esteem till the discovery of the fraud; and (2) that "cheating" was never restricted to single instances, but pervaded the entire careers of the guilty persons. IOW, Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus. 

"Reforming" is a futile exercise. In any case, as "RobertE" has commented, "Why bother? It's not as if we are short of scientists." 

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