Scientific Misconduct: Red Flags

critic1December 1, 2015 | The Scientist

Recent years have seen a spate of scientific scandals. Whether this is due to an increase in dishonesty or foul play in the lab or simply closer attention to the issue, research misconduct is now squarely in the public eye.

Scientific scandals come in all shapes and sizes and can result from the actions of lab members at any level. While misconduct cases involving principal investigators garner the most attention, lab heads are not the only ones engaging in wrongdoing; sometimes technicians, research assistants, postdocs, or even students in their laboratory are to blame. Despite the variety of research misconduct cases, similarities exist across these scandals, and upon closer examination it may be possible to identify patterns that provide clues for how to recognize and prevent misconduct in the future.

Lack of data transparency. Oftentimes, there is a significant lack of transparency in data sharing and storage. Scientific data are highly proprietary, and some measure of safekeeping is understandable. But in many cases of scientific fraud, no one—not even the wrongdoers’ colleagues—had access to the raw data. Transparency is not only essential for combating fraud; it can be an important safeguard for catching mistakes in data analysis and interpretation. Lack of transparency, while not a guarantee that fraud is taking place, is one red flag that something may be amiss.

“Revolutionary” findings. Another sign that may be cause for concern is the claim of a “revolutionary” or “groundbreaking” discovery. While such breakthroughs certainly happen, and are important for scientific progress, data that are “too good to be true” often are. Fraudsters rarely falsify research results in order to make mundane observations; it is their pursuit of international recognition, grant funding, and career advancement that leads them to commit fraud. Thus, breakthrough findings should be met with skepticism and, at a minimum, should motivate fellow scientists to attempt to replicate the work independently.

Misleading statistics. Mark Twain once said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” This certainly exaggerates the case, as sound statistical analysis is one of the foundations of modern science. But Twain had a point about the misleading way that statistics can be used. Scientific fraud often involves researchers using statistical techniques to obscure the true results of an experiment or to tell a story that simply does not exist. Researchers should be suspicious when they see examples of “lying with statistics” such as flipping the axes of graphs, using nonstandard values, or switching methods of measurement between figures in a confusing manner.

Suspicious lab practices. Another common pattern in scientific misconduct cases is that certain individuals stood out as being “exceptional” for some time before wrongdoing was identified. Whether such a person appears able to complete experiments at a much higher volume than anyone else, seems to possess a “magical” ability to make experiments or equipment work when others cannot, or has simply taken complete control over the research, those who uncover scientific fraud often realize that the warning signs had been apparent for some time.

Small lies, big lies. As American physician and writer Austin O’Malley once said, “Those who think it is permissible to tell white lies will soon become color-blind.” Scientists in all fields and at all seniority levels should be extremely concerned when they discover that a colleague is being untruthful about anything, even if it appears to be a small matter. In many scientific fraud cases, the wrongdoer’s colleagues did not immediately uncover the fraud itself, but discovered falsity in a peripheral issue, such as a small lie in credentials.

What to do if you see red flags

If you notice potential problems in your lab, the first thing to do is learn as much as possible about the situation. If you have concerns about a data set, find out when it was generated, who created it, what versions of the data exist, and what potential explanations could account for the discrepancies.

At that point, it can be appropriate to give your colleague an opportunity to explain the problem. It is important, however, to protect yourself. In some scientific fraud cases, the wrongdoer will turn on the potential whistleblower and make a preemptive allegation in order to use the institutional policies and procedures as a sword and shield. Even if this does not occur, a potential whistleblower should not take the colleague’s word at face value; follow-up will be necessary to verify. And be sure there is a clear written record of your observations before approaching your colleague.

If you continue to believe that scientific misconduct is occurring after speaking with your colleague and conducting a brief investigation, escalate the issue pursuant to your institution’s policy. Usually internal procedures require notification of the research integrity officer and/or department chair. Consider reporting the allegation externally as well, such as to the Office of Research Integrity of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, or by filing an action as a private whistleblower under the False Claims Act.

Whatever the course of action, it is important to do something. As previous cases of misconduct clearly illustrate, the damage that can be done through scientific fraud can be devastating not only to the scientific record, but also to human lives. 

John R. Thomas Jr., an attorney with Gentry Locke, represents scientific whistleblowers in a variety of matters, including False Claims Act cases. He is also chair of the Federal Bar Association Qui Tam Section, a Marine Corps Major, and a practicing judge advocate.

From:The Scientist