An ORI Case Summary, Research Ethics or Morals?

The case summary section of the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) website publishes descriptive summaries of research misconducts addressed by this office. Research misconducts include unethical practices such as plagiarism, fabrication, and falsification. The case that I reviewed was regarding a former researcher from the University of Alabama at Birmingham listed in the 2018 section.

The summary explains that “based on evidence and findings of an investigation conducted by the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), the Office of Research Integrity’s (ORI’s) review of UAB’s investigation, and additional evidence obtained and analysis conducted by ORI in its oversight review of UAB’s investigation” they found that the former Research Associate Professor, refers to as the respondent, committed research misconduct in research supported by PHS grants and NIH grants.

ORI then presents a list of publications in journals such as Nature and Biochem between 1999-2006 that the “falsified and/or fabricated research was reported.” The summary continues with an elaborated list of data falsifications that have been found in these papers.

The summary ends with explaining the penalties, including respondent’s debarring for ten years “from eligibility for any contracting or subcontracting with any agency of the United States Government and from eligibility for or involvement in nonprocurement programs of the United States Government” and also that he “prohibited from serving in any advisory capacity to PHS including, but not limited to, service on any PHS advisory committee, board, and/or peer review committee, or as a consultant”.
A google search of the respondent’s name shows that he still claims he did not commit any research misconduct, and also since the scandal and its consequences, no one has been able to reach him.

After going through some cases, I noticed that many of these misconduct cases are related to public health and medical research as they are directly linked to Human Subject Research. (The research in this field also caused other ethical and humane concerns of research, especially after cases such as Nazi experiments revealed.)
I thought of these three issues while reviewing some ORI cases:

– How might a researcher deal with ethical and moral questions?
– What are the motivations for a researcher to misconduct research? Are the academic communities and fundraisers also responsible for such cases?
– What measures and procedures ORI takes to identify intended research misconduct from unintended ones?

One topic commonly neglected to emphasize more during an academic education is ethics and moral integrity. Ethics is known as “principles of respect for the dignity of persons, and the acceptance of responsibility for the consequences of our moral choices.”
Moreover, even though ethics and morality are sometimes used interchangeably, they are different: ethics typically refer to rules presented by an external source, such as codes of conduct in workplaces or principles in religions, while morals refer to an individual’s principles regarding right and wrong. With this definition, there are times where ethics and morals have conflicts, e.g., for a person whose morals are against harming, running healthcare-related experiments on rats with strict healthcare ethical principles would be a great challenge.
Most of the time, ethics is not black and white; it often falls into a wide gray spectrum, and one needs to have an accurate and sensible measure to make a distinction and make the right decision. That is why relying merely on ethics is not sufficient. We need to evaluate situations with morals too since ethics concern norms and societal conditions. In some situations (Nazi case), there is also a risk of having a non-humane ethical framework.

Modern education systems rarely have integrity training, where honesty, responsibility, and commitment to the community should lead to academic progress and ratings. I think this issue could be one reason why ethics in research is neglected in some cases, especially in healthcare and Human Subject Research, where publications and “outcomes” impact humans and pave the path for the researcher to gain value and establishment. Although many of the academic filters and institutions (such as the Institutional Review Board, which is known as IRB) attempt to safeguard ethical issues in research, in many cases, the moral aspects are undermined and missed as a result of many reasons, including obsession and stress or ambition.

The other issue is that we tend to see these research misconducts as an act of neglect; however, the more likely reason in some cases seems to be institutional or financial pressures. We need to ask why a scholar would risk the career and future to publish falsified data? Is there some other imperative that offsets the risk?
We usually forget the direct or indirect pressures that the funding sources or institutional burdens can produce. I think research ethics can be very complex and needs training from the early years of education. It would be an investment for future research that can have local and global benefits.


One reply to “An ORI Case Summary, Research Ethics or Morals?

  1. Hi Sara.

    Thanks for this post. You raised key questions, especially about the motivations behind misconduct, which I think every researcher and Principal Investigator (PI) should reflect on. I find that ethics in research don’t get enough attention, I would like to see institutions provide more training and education to their students and researchers on the subject. I think that setting penalties for misconduct is one aspect of how to deal with these cases, however, we need more attention to the root causes of these cases such as funding-related pressures. I’m curious if you came across any strategies that universities apply to reduce any conflicts that may arise between career goals and research integrity.


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