Fixing Fraud

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

Andrea Gawrylewski
Feb 28, 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...

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.