Accountability for Research Misconduct

Zubin Master suggests that institutions bear some moral responsibility for research misconduct

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In early August, Scientist Yoshiki Sasai committed suicide. Sasai was the deputy director of the Center for Developmental Biology at RIKEN in Kobe, Japan, and co-author on two recently retracted Nature papers about an easier way to make induced pluripotent stem cells by exposing cells to stress. The Nature papers were retracted due to duplication and manipulation of images by the lead author – Haruko Obokata. Although cleared of any direct involvement in the activities responsible for the retraction, Sasai was heavily scrutinized by the media, public and peers.

According to colleagues at RIKEN, since the scandal broke headlines Sasai was receiving counseling and was hospitalized for about a month. The family lawyer explained the contents of a suicide note that Sasai left for his family. Sasai was “worn out by the unjust bashing in the mass media and the responsibility he felt towards RIKEN and his laboratory.”

Stem Cell

Embryonic Stem Cell Colony

This case raises important questions about the responsibilities of research institutions to promote research integrity and to prevent research misconduct. Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiments and other social psychology research have taught us that ethical behavior is not only shaped by dispositional attribution (an internal moral character), but also by many situational (environmental) features. Similarly, our understanding of the cause of research misconduct is shifting away from the idea that this is just a problem of a few “bad apples” to a broader understanding of how the immense pressure to both publish and translate research findings into products, as well as poor institutional supports influence research misconduct.

This is not to excuse misbehaviour by researchers, but rather to shed light on the fact that institutions also bear moral responsibility for research misconduct. Thus far, institutions have taken few measures to promote research integrity and prevent research misconduct. Indeed, in many high profile cases of research misconduct, they remain virtually blameless.

The tragic death of Sasai should cause us to consider the role of research institutions in cases of research misconduct. How well do research institutions handle investigations? Do they take measures to protect researchers and others involved in the case? The short answer to these questions seems to be that institutions are likely to react punitively to individual researchers by branding them as “bad apples”, removing them from their employ, and then taking corrective measures.

The ideals of science – openly sharing materials/methods, being motivated by discovery and not personal gain, judging one’s own work and others rigorously through strict standards – are being replaced with secrecy, self-promotion, and fierce competition. Competition in science creates a pressure to publish, and perhaps more recently to commercialize research. A recent survey by New Scientist reported that of 111 stem cell scientists, 56% felt stem cell research was put under more intense scrutiny than other areas of biomedical science and nearly 17% reported experiencing pressure to submit a paper for publication that they believed was incomplete or needed verification. Combining the pressure to produce results in a hyper competitive job market creates a stressful work environment that some believe is a recipe for research misconduct.

Given the culture of science today, what can research institutions do to create a healthier work environment? For starters, research institutions can help promote a culture of research integrity by educating trainees, faculty, and research administrators and staff. Education can provide the tools needed to deal with potential ethical issues in a constructive manner. Michael Kalichman explains that the primary goal of such education should be to “foster a research culture in which conversations about the responsible conduct of research are expected and acceptable”. Education about the responsible conduct of research needs to be more than a minimum requirement that scientists have to take and that institutions have to offer.

Institutions should also have to make transparent how allegations of misconduct will be handled, and ideally they should provide resources like an ombudsperson with whom researchers can confidentially (and amicably) discuss potential problems prior to raising a formal allegation of research misconduct requiring investigation. And if a formal investigation is needed, institutions should make efforts to protect the researchers who alleged potential misconduct from reprisal. As well, in cases where researchers are under tremendous stress during an investigation, appropriate accommodations should be made for these researchers.

Studies on the research climate in universities and academic departments are now being performed. While journals, funding agencies, integrity scholars, scientific societies and others can all do their part to promote a culture of research integrity, research institutions are uniquely positioned to promote integrity not only within their organization, but also to the larger community of science.

Research institutions should do more than simply remove any “bad apples”.  They should also help to build a culture of research integrity as they too bear some moral responsibility for, and thus are accountable for research misconduct.

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Zubin Master is an Assistant Professor at the Alden March Bioethics Institute, Albany Medical College.

For more on this topic, see Zubin Master “Holding institutions responsible for research misconduct: The recent case of a death of stem cell scientist” (here).

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