1. It is important to obtain accurate assessments of the actual amount of research misconduct
Members of Congress, especially members of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, should be urged to reconsider the quality of the data being relied upon for the number of research misconduct findings.
In an article published in Science Magazine about the Subcommittee on Research and Technology’s recent NSF hearings, it was reported to the public that:
“When a senior National Science Foundation (NSF) official told the House of Representatives science committee this month about a “significant rise in the number of substantive allegations” of research misconduct, her testimony set off alarm bells.
Legislators from both parties were clearly disturbed by this trend, which had led to three dozen findings of misconduct a year, and asked what the Arlington, Virginia–based NSF was doing about it. Committee Republicans unhappy with NSF’s current system of awarding grants saw her words as further proof that Congress needs to keep a closer eye on the $7.5 billion agency.”
(J.Mervis, Science Magazine, “Data check: NSF sends Congress a garbled message on misconduct numbers”, March 24, 2017)
This is a very appropriate concern by the committee, and one shared by scientists and the public alike.
However, the article also noted that a controversy may have ensued about what the actual amount of research misconduct is that could be undermining taxpayer funding of NSF’s research. One member of the subcommittee was reported as having estimated that reported levels of fabrication and falsification would only be affecting 0.0064% of funded grants.
Unfortunately, the actual amount of research misconduct is unknown and there are indications that it is much higher than the findings made by institutional self-policing.
“Co-founder of Retraction Watch, Dr Ivan Oransky, told BBC News: “We do not have a good handle on how much research misconduct takes place, but it’s become quite clear that universities and funding agencies and oversight bodies are not reporting even a reasonable fraction of the number of cases that they see.”
He said one of the most widely cited surveys suggests 2% of researchers admit to committing something that would be considered misconduct. “If that’s a ball-park figure of 2%, well, the number of cases that we hear about is a miniscule fraction of that,” said Dr Oransky.” (Helen Briggs, “’Fake research’ comes under scrutiny”, BBC News, March 27, 2017)
A 2% rate of misconduct affecting U.S. research grants would be more than 300-fold higher than Subcommittee member Daniel Lipinski (D–IL)’s estimate reported in the Science Magazine article. Mr. Lipinski’s estimate relied upon data reported largely by the regulated institutions to the NSF. However, it is important to realize that there is no system to check the completeness or accuracy of such institutional reports.
It may even be that the actual rate of research misconduct affecting U.S. research grants is higher than 2%. This scenario is not unlikely, given numerous studies which have shown that only a fraction of those committing misconduct admit to it even when questioned anonymously. Such a level of research misconduct would be a very bad situation for the U.S. taxpayer, even if fabrication and falsification are “only” a portion of the total misconduct.
But such studies still represent estimates. It is essential that the actual number of allegations be documented and their handling be fully evaluated.
2. Inspectors General should be auditing the handling of all allegations of research misconduct
It is not just the actual numbers that are at issue, but more importantly the system of oversight that allows the government and citizens to trust, or distrust, the numbers.
In that light, it is worth noting that the NSF misconduct numbers being used to suggest a seemingly low rate of affected grant funding are the product of an institutional self-policing regime, coupled with serious deficiencies in auditable documentation.
A recent report by the BBC found that the actual number of research misconduct allegations and findings were several fold higher than had been reported by various “official” sources. (1)
The BBC report relied upon the U.K. Freedom of Information Act, which requires public institutions, including universities, to make their documents available to the public. Apparently, to some meaningful extent, a subset of queried British research institutions accommodated requests under that act by the BBC.
In contrast, it seems unlikely that U.S. reporters could obtain comparable information under U.S. law. Indeed, it is not likely that U.S. IGs could do so either. (See “The Essential Need for Research Misconduct Allegation Audits”, Science and Engineering Ethics, 2016.)
U.S. federal research misconduct laws do not require the retention of specific records of all allegations made to U.S. research institutions. If in fact such documentation is not kept and made available to the public, then Congress should rectify this situation as soon as possible.
It should also be noted that even when records about allegations of research misconduct are expected to be available by law in the U.S., such as when the allegations were not initially dismissed, but instead were presented to a faculty inquiry committee, an institution’s failure to make a finding of research misconduct should be independently audited for validity as well. There are obvious conflicts of interest that can influence the behavior of institutional committees involving their own faculty or those they wish to hire – as the NSF OIG reported recently when it criticized the claims of such committees in the Feldheim Eaton case.
Therefore, the Inspector General ought to be conducting audits of the handling of all research misconduct allegations, not just at NSF, but at HHS and other agencies funding research as well.
Doing so may provide everyone, including members of Congress, with more useful numbers when trying to understand the impact of research misconduct on federal funds and taxpayer confidence.
Robert Bauchwitz CFE, PhD, MD
April 5, 2017
(1) “Official data points to about 30 allegations of research misconduct between 2012 and 2015. However, figures obtained by the BBC under Freedom of Information rules identified … at least 300 allegations [that] were reported at 23 of the 24 research- intensive Russell Group universities between 2011 and 2016 among staff and research students. About a third of allegations of plagiarism, fabrication, piracy and misconduct were upheld.” (Helen Briggs, “’Fake research’ comes under scrutiny”, BBC News, March 27, 2017).