Fairness for Fraudsters

The punishment for researchers guilty of misconduct is excessively punitive, and needs reform.

At the end of the exclusion period, researchers should be able to participate again as full members of the scientific community. But they can't.

The Office of Research Integrity (ORI), part of the US Public Health Service (PHS), serves an indispensible function: the identification and punishment of wrongdoers. A pioneer in the fight—and it is a fight—to retain honesty in scientific research, ORI continues to set standards for others around the world to follow. For the sake of research, researchers, and the wider community, it is essential that science's house is kept in order; we owe a debt of gratitude to ORI for the work that it does.

However, the system has a serious problem. Offenders are suffering far harsher penalties than intended.

As reported in a feature by Deputy Editor Alison McCook on...

This is surely not the intention. Any system of justice worthy of the name must mete out the applicable punishment alongside opportunities for rehabilitation and measures of crime prevention.

The current ORI procedure for the investigation of fraud seems fair. And the range of penalties for the guilty look, if anything, too lenient. They generally involve self-exclusion from advising PHS, say on a peer-review committee, and avoiding federal funding, both for a finite period of time.

For the sake of fairness, these sentences must be implemented precisely as intended. This means that at the end of the exclusion period, researchers should be able to participate again as full members of the scientific community. But they can't.

Misconduct findings against a researcher appear on the Web—indeed, in multiple places on the Web. And the omnipresence of the Web search means that reprimands are being dragged up again and again and again. However minor the misdemeanor, the researcher's reputation is permanently tarnished, and his or her career is invariably ruined, just as surely as if the punishment were a lifetime ban. 

Both the NIH Guide and The Federal Register publish findings of scientific misconduct, and are archived online. As long as this continues, the problem will persist. The director of the division of investigative oversight at ORI has stated his regret at the "collateral damage" caused by the policy (see page 32). But this is not collateral damage; it is a serious miscarriage of justice against researchers and a stain on the integrity of the system, and therefore of science.

It reminds me of the system present in US prisons, in which even after "serving their time," prisoners will still have trouble finding work because of their criminal records. But is it fair to compare felons to scientists who have, for instance, fudged their affiliations on a grant application when they were young and naïve?

The problem could be immediately solved by omitting findings of scientific misconduct from archived Web publications. Why can't the guilty be named solely in the ORI's Administrative Actions list, which presents current cases only?

I'm also concerned that the policy was defended on the grounds that publicity about wrongdoers acts as a deterrent. Increased efforts to tackle fraud are needed, but sacrificing the few that are caught is not the way.

There are much better methods of subverting fraud. There is little one can do about the motive to commit fraud, but one can have an influence on opportunity, for instance by:

• Prioritizing the teaching of a research code of conduct

• Strengthening procedures to detect and handle misconduct within academic institutions, which are quixotic at present

• Increasing the funding for ORI and similar agencies to improve levels of surveillance

• Giving formal responsibilities to journal editors for the identification of fraud

• Increasing the penalties for researchers found guilty of misconduct during the finite period of their sentence

Whatever is done, the rules should be followed in letter and in spirit. An unfair system of dealing with fraud is a stigma on science, as well as a grievous injustice for its victims.

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