research misconduct in the lab

Lindsay Lewis

3 Ways to Prevent University Research Misconduct


There are so many instances of university research misconduct that the spotlight is shining brighter on institutions now than ever. Not the good kind of spotlight, either.

Findings involving university research can be either good or bad. We celebrate, publish and acknowledge scientific contributions at universities. After all, research is part of our mission. Conversely, there are also instances of university research that reflect poorly on institutions.

Moreover, universities and their research culture feel the impact of misconduct inquiries.

Take Duke’s research misconduct settlement that made national headlines recently.

A university professor fabricated data that was then used to garner additional federal funds for research. Consequently, Duke President Vincent Price emphasized how difficult this situation was for the university. He stressed the importance of research integrity and accountability for everyone involved in a research enterprise. It is no surprise that the university took a big hit to its reputation. Additionally, they are taking the right steps toward rebuilding Duke’s down-but-not-out cachet.

Why? Beyond the $112 million settlement Duke will pay back to the federal government, it still has a long road ahead. Duke now has to embark on a journey to repair its national reputation. As a result, the university has taken major steps to implement a more structured system of checks and balances. Further, it will heavily promote research ethics as part of its research culture.

Every year sees some institution on the defense after one of its researchers was caught engaging in university research misconduct. So what can universities do to promote a culture of research integrity?

Establish Expectations from the Top Down

One of the most important steps universities can take is creating a culture of research integrity throughout its enterprise. This culture would go a long way in preventing university research misconduct. And it takes everyone’s involvement.

This means establishing guidelines and expectations at the institutional level. It also means communicating them routinely to the campus community. Building a culture of integrity means establishing core values and oversight at the college and department levels. It calls for principal investigators to clearly communicate what research integrity means to all research personnel. And they should be good role models to boot.

“PI’s are responsible for creating a lab environment that’s conducive to constructive criticism,” said Claudia Neuhauser, associate vice president for research and technology transfer at the University of Houston. “There’s a huge issue with the competitive research culture that lends itself to issues. We want to be first with the research and that leads to bad judgment. Creating a transparent operation is the first step in ensuring integrity.”

Make Lab Protocols

Every university with research personnel will have misconduct cases. In the majority of these cases, it is a group of researchers or students that committed an infraction. Not a single principal investigator.

With so many people touching experiments and the resulting data, the risk of mishandling either of these increases greatly. When there are too many hands in the pot, someone is bound to bungle the recipe. Without proper protocols in place in the lab, principal investigators and their research is certainly at risk. And that puts the university at risk as well.

“There are a lot of detrimental research practices that could potentially result in the falsification of data, for example,” said Kirstin Holzschuh, executive director of UH’s Research Integrity and Oversight office. “It’s really important for principal investigators to establish ethical lab practices to ensure the integrity of the data.”

This means establishing clear, concise protocols for data storage, for one. And two, according to Holzschuh, all research team members can be trained to use online lab notebooks, for example, or other systems that promote transparency and consistency in the documentation of research results.   

Manage the Data

Another simple but important task to reducing the risk of bad data is, well, checking it here and there to make sure it’s accurate. And this goes for all data – everything from the raw data sets to the final analyses. Consequently, this will reduce the chance of mistakes or bias in research.

“Data sets are a lurking problem,” said Ioannis Pavlidis, Eckhard Pfeifer Professor in the UH Department of Computer Science, who was the principal investigator in a science ethics project funded by the National Science Foundation. “There’s been an explosion of data the last decade. New professors, students and even tenured professors may not know how to handle it. That’s where mistakes happen.”

Pavlidis stresses the importance of managing data from research experiments. “If nobody is looking at the full set of data, whoever is handling it can do whatever they want with it. There must be oversight.”

Moreover, Pavlidis also said that the ongoing risks of mishandling or misinterpreting large data sets means more scrutiny in the future. This means that research oversight, whether innocent or not, puts a spotlight on the research institution. And not the good kind.

“Few people in research teams scrutinize the full data sets, and this is a problem” he said. “Thankfully, there’s an increasing trend to publicize data and methods with paper submissions, which opens research to crowd checking – a powerful quality control mechanism. Investigators will be pressed to do a better job and to be more careful with original and curated data.”

You can read UH’s policies and principles on university research misconduct here.