What is Research Misconduct?

April 1, 2019
On February 28 to March 1, 2019, Moi University and Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Commission for Science and Technology and the National Research Fund, held a workshop on the construction of a legal framework for research misconduct (RM), to ensure that there are institutional frameworks to prevent RM, and structures to handle RM allegations. This blog is informed by lessons from the deliberations that took place during the workshop.

The ideal institutional framework for managing research misconduct (RM) is one that can prevent, detect/report, enable inquiry and investigation, and maintain and enforce research integrity. The quality of any evidence from research cannot be divorced from the integrity of the research practices and researchers that generate the said evidence. Therefore, whether intentional or not, RM has dire consequences. RM accounts for a majority of retracted scientific publications.

So, what exactly constitutes RM?

There is a misalignment between the research and what is represented in the research records for multiple reasons. The research materials, equipment, and processes are often manipulated, and occasionally, the data and results are changed or omitted. Falsification requires self-reporting and whistle blowing; both of which come with the fear of being reprimanded.

Manipulating data or results and recording or reporting is another form of research misdemeanor. However, similar to falsification, fabrication is under reported too.

Plagiarism, the most common form of misconduct, is the appropriation of another person’s ideas processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit. Owing to the widespread nature of this form of improper conduct, software has been developed to detect and counter it.

Other forms of wrong-doing in research include the exclusion of outliers as a result of a data entry error (to fit the stated hypothesis); selective reporting; p- hacking (data dredging); breach of privacy (of research participants); unethical authorship; transmission or transfer of research materials and data outside of the agreed upon jurisdiction, among others.

Falsification, fabrication, and plagiarism account for 2% to 14% of research malpractice, while other questionable research practices account for 34% to 75%. It should be noted that ‘honest’ errors and differences in opinion are not considered misdemeanors.

So, what causes RM?

  • Researcher factors– These include the way in which one was trained in research, existing incentives versus penalties and, the personal moral values of a researcher which in turn govern one’s integrity (reliability, honesty, respect, and accountability).
  • Research ecosystem factors – These are existing guidelines, regulations, and frameworks. The research environment may have loop-holes and gaps that prevent the detection and reporting of improper conduct.

The research process involves many interconnected steps and teams of individuals. When misconduct occurs in one level, it calls into question the integrity of the entire research process. The implication of an individual in the team immediately makes other team members complicit in the affair. The absence of reported cases in any institution does not always mean that there is no malpractice in that institution. In some cases, it could merely signify that the institution is ignorant of what constitutes research misconduct and how it occurs.

In other cases, these transgressions could be going on without being detected due to the absence of instruments of detection. Worst case scenario, the lapses could be taking place (and are being discovered) but going unreported to protect the reputation of the institution and the individuals involved.

The truth is, research misconduct is taking place and is aggravated by a multitude of factors. These include inadequate policy and guidelines at the organizational level, lengthy adjudication of wrongdoing, allegations, and fear of losing individual and institutional credibility. Therefore, it is critical to put in place structures that manage and enforce research integrity. These structures should be put in place at several levels, from regional, national and even at granular levels, such as institutions.

This would enable customization of practices according to the organizational culture, type of research, type of institution and existing policies defining ethical research practices. It is vital to ensure that the system is attractive to researchers and is a non-biased and transparent procedure for incentivizing ethical research practices that deter research misconduct.