Evolving research misconduct policies and their significance for physical scientists

Research paper by James J. Dooley, Helen M. Kerch

Indexed on: 01 Mar '00Published on: 01 Mar '00Published in: Science and Engineering Ethics


Scientific misconduct includes the fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism (FFP) of concepts, data or ideas; some institutions in the United States have expanded this concept to include “other serious deviations (OSD) from accepted research practice.” It is the absence of this OSD clause that distinguishes scientific misconduct policies of the past from the “research misconduct” policies that should be the basis of future federal policy in this area. This paper introduces a standard for judging whether an action should be considered research misconduct as distinguished from scientific misconduct: by this standard, research misconduct must involve activities unique to the practice of science and must have the potential to negatively affect the scientific record. Although the number of cases of scientific misconduct is uncertain (only the NIH and the NSF keep formal records), the costs are high in terms of the integrity of the scientific record, diversions from research to investigate allegations, ruined careers of those eventually exonerated, and erosion of public confidence in science. Existing scientific misconduct policies vary from institution to institution and from government agency to government agency; some have highly developed guidelines that include OSD, others have no guidelines at all. One result has been that the federal False Claims Act has been used to pursue allegations of scientific misconduct. As a consequence, such allegations have been adjudicated in federal courts, rather than judged by scientific peers. The federal government is now establishing a first-ever research misconduct policy that would apply to all research funded by the federal government regardless of which agency funded the research or whether the research was carried out in a government, industrial or university laboratory. Physical scientists, who up to now have only infrequently been the subject of scientific misconduct allegations, must nonetheless become active in the debate over research misconduct policies and how they are implemented since they will now be explicitly covered by this new federal wide policy.