Skip to Main Content
Skip Nav Destination

National Academies release sweeping review of research misconduct

14 April 2017

A new report calls out detrimental practices such as improper authorship and irreproducible research.

Einstein statue

A statue of Albert Einstein sits outside the National Academy of Sciences building in Washington, DC.

A major study on scientific integrity in the US advocates stricter policies for scientific authorship attribution, increased openness in scientific work, the reporting of negative findings, and establishment of an independent, nonprofit Research Integrity Advisory Board.

Fostering Integrity in Research,” released 11 April by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, is an update to their landmark 1992 study, “Responsible Science: Ensuring the Integrity of the Research Process.” In the intervening 25 years, the scientific research enterprise has become larger, more globalized, and increasingly driven by information technology, which has led to major changes in how the integrity of research can be eroded or protected.

The new study also notes that since 1992 many scientific organizations and federal agencies have implemented firmer integrity policies; it cites in particular the “Federal Policy on Research Misconduct” issued in 2000. And the report acknowledges that new incidents of misconduct and more intensive study of the subject have brought more understanding about the nature of scientific integrity.

Misconduct and other suspect practices can cost up to hundreds of millions of dollars per year, the report estimates.

Confronting detrimental practices

The Academies committee endorses the 1992 study’s definition of research misconduct as “fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism, in proposing, performing, or reporting research.” But the panel reclassifies as “detrimental” several research practices that the 1992 report called “questionable.” Researchers and institutions have often tolerated practices that the committee views as “not questionable at all but as clear violations of the fundamental tenets of research.”

For instance, the committee unequivocally states that every author listed on a paper should have made a “significant intellectual contribution,” and it condemns “gift or honorary authorship, coercive authorship, ghost authorship, and omitting authors who have met the articulated standards.” The report acknowledges the various forms an intellectual contribution can take.

The report also says that research should be more open and accountable. Researchers and their institutions, publishers, and sponsors should implement policies and infrastructure to make data, computer code, and other important elements of research more accessible. They should also disclose “all statistical tests carried out, including negative findings.” The Academies committee condemns practices that misrepresent the significance of positive results and that obscure knowledge of research programs and methods that fail to yield significant findings.

The study authors are particularly concerned with the widely reported inability to replicate a significant fraction of published research results. Failures to reproduce results can have numerous causes, the panel says, and a “certain level of irreproducibility is to be expected” in science. Nevertheless, the committee draws a strong link between detrimental research practices and the reproducibility problem, particularly in fields such as clinical research and psychology.

The report asserts that irreproducible research engenders major costs, which include harms associated with relying on false results, the time and effort of researchers who must contend with such results, and the resources put into wasted research. Increasing the openness of research is put forth as an important step in combating the problem.

The Academies committee retains the category of “other misconduct” from the 1992 report to encompass behaviors such as sexual harassment. But because such behaviors are “not unique to the research process,” the panel argues that they should not be handled through mechanisms specializing in research misconduct. The recommendation comes as the American Geophysical Union considers classifying harassment and other work climate issues as scientific misconduct subject to that organization’s ethics policy.

Advisement over regulation

The Academies committee leans heavily on social science research in assessing the underlying causes of scientific misconduct and detrimental research practices. “Research is a people business,” said chair Robert Nerem, a Georgia Tech University bioengineer, at an event marking the study’s release. “And if we’re really to understand why research misconduct and detrimental research practices take place, we have to understand it from the context of the behavior of people. And that means understanding this in the context of social and behavioral science.”

The report emphasizes that rather than simply attributing all instances of misconduct and detrimental research practices to the actions of “bad apples,” it is important to understand the role played by structural features of the scientific research enterprise. It points to stresses created by the scientific rewards system and the intensity of competition within the sciences, which is exacerbated by increasing difficulties in obtaining resources and finding permanent positions for younger researchers.

Developing specific remedies to structural challenges was beyond the committee’s scope, but the report does delineate best practices that are applicable across all fields of science. And it recommends that all institutions and organizations associated with science should review and update their policies to respond to threats to research integrity.

The panel also observes that science has retained from its heritage a reluctance to formalize its governance practices along the lines of professions such as law or medicine. It notes, for instance, that mentors are often remiss in actively fostering integrity, and that institution-mandated training can be perfunctory. But the report rejects “relying on increased regulatory oversight” as a solution but instead suggests it is more important to foster integrity than to react more strongly to misconduct. The report also notes that more regulation would add to researchers’ already heavy regulatory burden.

Instead, the Academies recommend establishing an independent, nonprofit Research Integrity Advisory Board. The board would continually review issues related to research integrity and consult with stakeholders in the research enterprise. It would not, however, serve as a forum for mediating disputes or adjudicating accusations. According to estimates in the report, such an advisory council would require an annual budget of about $3 million and a permanent staff of three or four individuals supplemented by the work of fellows and consultants.

This article is adapted from a 12 April post on FYI, which reports on federal science policy with a focus on the physical sciences. Both FYI and Physics Today are published by the American Institute of Physics.

Close Modal

or Create an Account

Close Modal
Close Modal