Research Integrity

Integrity is the cornerstone of scientific research. Without it, the complex interweave of the delicate fabric that is scientific research begins to fall apart in often unanticipated and undesirable ways. What we do as individual scientists in terms of the experimental protocols and materials we use, the “facts” on which we base our work, the quality of the materials we produce (software, drugs and reagents, materials, and technical data), the communications we have with others about our work and theirs affects untold others every day. To advance and innovate individually and as a community, we rely strongly on the delicate bond of trust and honesty that exists between us, as members of the greater scientific community.

In this section, we will look at some of the key issues of which you should be aware as an apprentice in the greater scientific research community. Our goal here isn’t to tell you what to think, what to do, or to provide you with any magical algorithms or formulas for reaching a decision regarding right and wrong in any situation. You will quickly find that the landscape in scientific research by virtue of its unexplored and often unanticipated nature is fraught with complex, multi-faceted issues. Such issues require thought and may need to be revisited as new data become available. You will find that prior experience, family, culture, and religious beliefs may lead you to at times to a consensus with your peers but at other times to a different viewpoint and/or action than those around you. Consequently, the point is to equip you to think first, ask second, and act third when faced with new, unfamiliar, and often complex ideas and situations. This will enable you to sidestep problems when possible/practical, make wise decisions when challenges arise (and they will), and in the long term equip you to act with moral leadership when called upon to adjudicate the complex challenges of modern research with wisdom, compassion, and personal integrity.

Why Is Research Integrity So Important?

Research integrity is the commitment - sometimes in the face of adversity - to the trustworthiness of the research process by the greater scientific community. It is important - even critical - because the greater scientific community can only innovate and flourish when its members function together as a body to ensure a climate that promotes confidence and trust in our research findings, encourages free and open exchange of research materials and new ideas, upholds personal and corporate accountability, and acknowledges and respects the intellectual contributions of others in the greater community.


Articles on Research Integrity

Count the Cost - Whistleblowers

Each of us as a member of the scientific community shares the responsibility for upholding the integrity of the research process and of the scholarship that results from this effort. It is important that we don’t ignore or tolerate misconduct when it occurs and that we take action when necessary to correct problems. Research integrity calls each of us, as members of the greater scientific community, to responsible action not indifference when research misconduct occurs. Speaking up however about ethical concerns though emotionally and morally satisfying often brings with it some negative consequences. So, it is really important to count the cost before you speak out. Don’t assume that your privacy will or can be protected. That is not to say that you shouldn’t speak out for fear of possible personal penalty or reprisal but that you should make sure that you are prepared to deal with the possible consequences of your actions. At a minimum, those who bring to light misconduct are often branded “whistleblowers.” There may also be significant personal and professional costs including the advent of adverse and hostile working conditions, loss of job or demotion, etc. The bottom line is that it takes courage and conviction to speak out.

When should you speak out? When:

  • Criminal action is involved;
  • Research misconduct has occurred;
  • Physical injury or loss of life could result; and/or
  • Facilities, equipment or materials and resources are at risk

If you wish to report an allegation, you should report the incident in writing and provide as much information as possible including the nature of the alleged misconduct, the name of the individual(s) involved and their role(s) in the incident, the date and location of the incident, and a detailed description of the incident. Any written documentation supporting your concerns should be cited and provided as well. Depending on the severity of the situation, your college and/or university may act quickly to form a committee to investigate the alleged misconduct. Since serious allegations are not encountered routinely in academe, it is difficult to describe here the specifics of the investigation process but you should expect it to be protracted and likely contentious by virtue of the seriousness of the allegations involved. The Office of Research Integrity has published model procedures that should be used when allegations of research misconduct are made in laboratories receiving federal support.

Documented examples of genuine research misconduct are rare. The National Institutes of Health’s Office of Research Integrity (NIH ORI) publishes on ORI's website summaries of recent closed cases that concluded that misconduct had occurred or that resulted in administrative action but did not conclude that misconduct had occurred.

Fundamental Types of Research Dilemmas

Research presents a unique set of ethical challenges. Being aware of these challenges and being prepared to deal with them are vital to your success as a researcher. Do you think you are prepared? Can you can answer all of the following questions?

  • Who owns the laboratory notebook?
  • With whom can you discuss your research? What can you tell these individuals about your research?
  • Who owns the creative findings that will result from your work in the laboratory?
  • What is required for authorship in your laboratory? Will your name go on the by-line of any papers or presentations that result from your work?
  • What is required for inventorship in your laboratory? Will you be listed as an inventor or any new intellectual property that results from your work this summer?
  • Is it ever “OK” to copy something you read in print? What information should you cite (credit) when you write up your work? Do you know how to properly cite the work of others in any presentations and/or publications you will create?
  • Is it ever “OK” to “modify” data, omit data, or make up data?
  • What relationships if any do you have that might bias you or appear to bias you in the conduct or reporting of your research?
  • What, if any, are the hazards that are presented by your research project (reagents, products) to you, your colleagues, your institution, and the world? How will you minimize these dangers to yourself and others?


Falsification/Fabrication of Data

Falsification/Fabrication of Data

The integrity of research depends on the integrity of the data and the data record. As falsification and fabrication call into question the integrity of data and the data record, they represent serious issues in scientific ethics. Falsification is the practice of omitting or altering research materials, equipment, data, or processes in such a way that the results of the research are no longer accurately reflected in the research record. Fabrication is the practice of inventing data or results and recording and/or reporting them in the research record. Both of these schemes are probably among the most serious offenses in scientific research as they challenge the credibility of everyone and everything involved in a research effort. These offenses make it very difficult for scientists to move forward as it is unclear to anyone what if anything is true and can be trusted– can lead students and colleagues to waste precious time, effort, and resources investigating dead ends. Our interconnectedness makes us all vulnerable when one member acts irresponsibly.

A prime example of this is the case of wunderkind physicist Dr. Jan Hendrick Schon of Bell Laboratories. Allegations of fabrication and falsification of published data first came to light in 2002 when researchers presented Bells Laboratories with evidence that data presented in five papers published over a two year period were suspicious. Noise, which is usually random in pattern, on data in two of the figures looked identical. Only a short time later, the authenticity of data appearing in nine more figures published in eight additional papers were also called into question by the physics community. Ultimately, Bell Laboratories concluded that Dr. Schon either falsified or fabricated data appearing in publications between 1998 and 2001 and terminated his employment. Co-authors retracted seven articles published in Nature and eight articles appearing in Science. Independent efforts by scientists at IBM and Delft University (Netherlands) failed to reproduce data from several studies. Lucent Technologies’ executive summary and report of the investigation can be found here. Since Schon and colleagues had published a large body of work in recent years and since the work was considered to be revolutionary, the impact of his malfeasance on research in the field of field effect transistors (FETs) has been said to be enormous. Govert Schilling in an article appearing in Science magazine in 2002 (G. Schilling. (2002) Science 296, 1584-1585) estimated that over 100 groups worldwide were working on related projects when the misconduct came to light. In a number of these laboratories postdoctoral and graduate students had been unsuccessfully working on efforts to replicate and build on Schon’s work.

Ownership of Research Materials and Data

Ownership of Research Materials and Data

Normally research materials such as chemical reagents, solvents, etc. and miscellaneous supplies including notebooks, pens, zip disks, CDs, paper, etc. are provided by your research advisor and workplace for your use in carrying out your research project. These materials are purchased using internal or external funds specifically designated to support the project on which you are working. This means that these materials are the property of the research laboratory and/or institution where you are carrying out your research. Perhaps the most important of these materials is the laboratory notebook. Since it is a record of all of the work that has been performed on a specific project, it has immense value in terms of the intellectual property (research ideas, evidence of reduction to practice, etc.) for your advisor and your workplace. For this reason, it is not acceptable to remove laboratory notebooks or any other materials and supplies from the research lab without your advisor’s express permission nor is it acceptable to remove pages from the notebook or to photocopy pages without obtaining express permission to do so. Note that many laboratory notebooks, particularly those that you may be required to purchase for your science and engineering laboratory courses, are designed to allow the user to make a copy of the contents of the notebook. Don’t assume that simply because the notebook design allows you to make a copy that you have your advisor and/or your workplace’s permission to make and retain photocopies of the notebook contents.

It is also not acceptable to borrow and use research materials for demonstrations, science fairs or any other projects and/or activities outside the workplace without first obtaining the express permission of your advisor and workplace. There are two potential issues here: intellectual property rights and laboratory safety (liability issues), too. In some cases, the materials you may use in your work may have been acquired from other research groups and/or companies through legal signed “transfer of materials” agreements that limit their use. Even if there are no signed agreements, unanticipated problems resulting from the use of misuse of the research materials may pose health risks that could pose serious legal liability issues for you and your employer.


  • As a student working in someone else’s research laboratory, it is important for you to find out what your advisor’s policies are regarding the ownership of research materials and data and follow
  • Always ask first and obtain written permission from your advisor to use or remove any materials outside the laboratory


If there is one issue with which you are likely at least somewhat familiar, it is plagiarism. That said, although many students have heard the term “plagiarism” most are unclear exactly what plagiarism really is and why the issue is taken so seriously in academe and the scientific profession as whole. In this section, we’ll discuss plagiarism and outline some useful strategies you can implement today in order to prevent problems now and in the future.

Stories of incidents involving plagiarism abound on most college campuses. The development of the internet and the ability afforded by computers and computer technology to copy and paste from written documents has no doubt exascerbated the problem of plagiarism. At the same time however, computer technology has proven useful in facilitating the detection of plagiarism, too. A good example of this was described in 2000 in the Chronicle of Higher Education in an article written by Julianne Basinger. Then freshman Seth Weitberg was doing research on the internet about education. Seth noticed that the text of a paper allegedly written by Mr. Scott D. Miller, President of Wesley College (Delaware), was markedly similar in content and form to that of a speech written eight years earlier by Claire Gaudiani, President of Connecticut College and e-mailed both Mr. Miller and Ms. Gaudiani concerning his observation. Subsequently, irregularities were also observed in a biography of Mr. Miller that appeared on the Wesley College website. Links to the original papers and a side-by-side comparison of a number of excerpts from the two papers can be found in the Chronicle of Higher Education article.

In a more recent article appearing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Assistant Professor of Political Science Kim Lanegran describes her own poignant brush with plagiarism from the perspective of the victim. Shortly after defending her dissertation, Dr. Lanegran received a telephone call from a doctoral student at another university who had read one of her publications and was interested in whether Dr. Lanegran had written any other papers on the same topic. Excited by the interest of a fellow student in her work, Dr. Lanegran copied her dissertation onto a diskette and mailed it to the student. Three years later, she obtained a copy of the student’s dissertation through interlibrary loan and was shocked to discover that much of it was taken word for word from her dissertation and that her work was not credited anywhere in the volume. Subsequently, Dr. Lanegran contacted the student’s graduate school with evidence that the dissertation was plagiarized and the student’s Ph.D. was quietly withdrawn. The incident shook her to her core. She describes the impact of it in her Chronicle of Higher Education article as having “nearly defeated me, shaking my faith in academe’s core values as well as my ability to turn my students into honest scholars.”

Plagiarism is defined by the National Science Foundation’s Office of Science and Technology as “the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit, including those obtained through confidential review of others’ research proposals and manuscripts.” Plagiarism is fundamentally an issue relating to intellectual property and is grounded in the fundamental idea that words represent ideas which are a form of intellectual property and that the unique expression of those ideas in written format belongs to and is owned by the person who expressed them. Consequently, it isn’t acceptable to copy phrases (short groups of words), sentences, paragraphs, or whole articles written by another person or group of people.

If indeed someone believes it is necessary to use that person’s words in order to accurately and adequately convey the ideas involved, then it is necessary to do two things:

  1. Place all of the words taken from the original work within quotation marks;
  2. Cite the original published work(s) in your bibliography.

There is a specific format to use when citing other people’s original work, no matter the form (technical report, communication, journal article, meeting abstract, etc.) or medium of the communication (book, journal, webpage, personal communication, etc.). The specific format requirements are unique to each scientific/engineering field or discipline and/or technical journal and vary widely even within a field. Today, there are many computer programs available today to assist you in preparing correctly formatted bibliographies. Examples of some of the more commonly used programs are:

Many colleges, universities, and companies provide students and employees with access to one or more of these bibliographic programs on their computer networks. Consult your Information Systems and/or college/university library personnel to find out whether or not you may have access to one or more of these programs. If not, as a student you may be able to purchase the software either at your bookstore or on-line at a reduced academic rate (with proof that you are currently enrolled full-time as a student in a degree-granting program).

Ignorance Is Not A Valid Excuse for Plagiarism

Sometimes students unwittingly plagiarize. A common mistake many people make when they read something and don’t understand what they have read is that they copy down the writer’s words with the intent of later changing the language. Unfortunately, later never arrives. Most people simply forget that the words jotted in their notes aren’t their own. In this case ignorance is not bliss nor is it a legitimate excuse for plagiarizing. A better idea is to simply commit to always use your own words when you write anything. If you don’t understand something and feel compelled to copy the author’s words down, then place them within quotation marks so you know that these words aren’t your own and be sure to include the citation for the original work so you won’t have to struggle later to try to identify the original source.

If you find that you are having a difficult time expressing your thoughts clearly using your own words, then this is likely a sign that you really don’t understand the concept as well as you think that you do. If you don’t understand something you are reading, discuss it with your advisor, other teachers, or peers. When you think you understand the concept, write it down in your own words and again consult your advisor, teachers, etc. if you are concerned whether you have expressed the new ideas accurately or not.


Sometimes people will substitute one or more words in a sentence or longer section of another person’s work which retains the original author’s sentence structure, organization of thoughts and ideas without proper attribution of the work borrowed. This is called paraphrasing and is widely regarded as a form of plagiarism. It is not an acceptable practice in the science and engineering professions.

Summary of Useful Guidelines for Writing

  • Always use your own words when you write;
  • If you must use someone else’s words, place them within quotation marks and cite the original work in your bibliography; and
  • When you write about facts that are the ideas or work of others, cite, cite, cite!


J. Basinger. (2000) Chronicle of Higher Education. May 19. “The Similarities of 2 Presidents’ Papers.” Avail. URL:
K. Lanegran. (2003) Chronicle of Higher Education. July 2. “Fending Off a Plagiarist.” Avail. URL:

Authorship/Assignment of Credit

Authorship is an important method of identifying those individuals who have been responsible for the ideas, experimental work, interpretation, and written expression of the work submitted for presentation at professional conferences and/or publication in a technical journal. As such there is great responsibility attached to authorship both for the authors named on the paper, the institutions with which they are affiliated, and the publisher or professional organization associated with the conference or technical journal. Authorship is important to the professional reputation of all involved. Criteria for authorship do vary somewhat between disciplines, institutions, and individual laboratories. However, criteria generally require that an individual:

  • Made a significant, identifiable, original intellectual contribution to the project. This means that the person must have done more than merely serve as a pair of hands (following SOPs, recording data, doing data entry, performing data analysis, typing, etc.) in executing a series of experiments;
  • Understands the study reported in the paper as a whole; and that he/she
  • Participated in the writing of the technical paper

As such, the author is capable of and responsible for defending the quality of the study, the technical interpretation of the data, and the written expression of the work as articulated in the paper.

The order of authorship is also an important issue in science and engineering. In general, the order of the names indicates the relative contributions that each person made to the paper. The first person named on the by-line of a paper is the person who is credited with having made the most significant contributions to that study. Often the last name on the paper is that of the principal investigator, in academics, the professor in whose work the research study was carried out.

The requirements apply to all involved in the research project – supervisors as well as to researchers in other words, simply providing mentorship doesn’t qualify someone for authorship on a paper any more than being a laboratory technician does. For the same reasons, being a member of a team working on a research problem doesn’t automatically translate into authorship on a paper. Authorship is awarded to all contributors based on their professional contributions to the work described in the manuscript in question. Another important point is that age is not a criterion for authorship. High school students and undergraduates have been authors – even first authors – on technical papers published in high quality journals. Nor is the length of time spent or the extent of effort made on work a legitimate argument for authorship. It is the quality of the contributions that determines authorship. Employment status, whether you work on a project as a volunteer, receive academic credit, or money, is also not a consideration in determining authorship. Finally, it is important to realize that even if authorship is initially offered to you on a paper by your advisor, the offer may later be withdrawn if your intellectual contributions to the work, for whatever reason, don’t turn out to be those originally anticipated.


  • Make sure that you understand what it takes to be an author on a paper in the lab where you work.
  • Discuss the criteria for authorship with your advisor at the outset of your research project or as soon as possible thereafter to avoid any misunderstandings.
  • Keep detailed notes and document your contributions to the project in writing in your laboratory notebook.


Another idea that you may not be familiar with is confidentiality. If your research project is funded by private industry, your institution and your advisor may have signed some sort of written, legally binding agreement called a confidentiality agreement that may limit or prohibit some or any oral and/or written communication with others outside the financial/research relationship concerning the project. These agreements also often limit presentation and/or publication of project findings to those outside of the confidentiality agreement. Thus, you may not be able to present your findings at professional conferences or publish your findings in the peer-reviewed literature. Consequently, it is important to inquire about any restrictive requirements that could affect your project and/or your ability to discuss your work at the beginning of your research project.


  • Make sure that you understand what your advisor’s policies are regarding confidentiality.
  • Do not share information about your research with anyone outside your research group without first obtaining permission to do so from your research advisor.
  • If someone shares a research grant application, unpublished manuscript, or unpublished research results, be sure to keep this information confidential unless the person gives you permission otherwise.


Clearly, as a community, researchers will be able to affect the greatest progress when they have access to all the information currently known relevant to their research problem. The more information we have the greater the likelihood that we will innovate, collaborate, share and make progress. Thus, openness is an important issue affecting everyone in science.

Important issues in regard to openness include:

Conflict Of Interest

A conflict of interest occurs whenever you have personal interests that conflict, could affect even compromise the judgments you need to make as an impartial, objective scientist. For example, it would likely be very difficult to read and impartially review a technical paper written by a hostile competitor or by a very dear friend and mentor. In the same it would be difficult to publish the results of a biomedical study you conducted with funding provided by private industry that demonstrated that the company’s flagship drug had no more efficacy than a placebo in treating disease. Consequently, colleges and universities, granting agencies, publishers, and private industry require applicants, reviewers and other evaluators to disclose any financial, educational, employment, or other relationships that could threaten objectivity via written disclosures of conflicts of interest. These documents protect the integrity of the individuals, institutions and of science overall.

The following are useful questions to ask in order to ascertain if there is a conflict of interest present.

  • Do I or anyone affiliated closely with me have any potential to financially or professionally benefit from the relationship?
  • Could our relationship improperly advantage or disadvantage my employer or anyone else improperly?


  • Report to your advisor as soon as possible any relationships or circumstances that may represent conflicts of interest relevant to your research project so he/she can figure out how to properly manage the situation.

Sharing of Research Materials

On the face of it, it might seem as if it is a mute point to discuss the sharing of research materials including biological organisms, data, even ideas. After all, how can science and engineering thrive and grow if scientists don’t share needed materials with each other in the greater scientific community? In fact, in some fields, it is standard practice to deposit materials and data in national repositories in order to speed discovery and innovation. Examples of such national data repositories include The Protein Data Bank, a repository for protein crystallographic and nuclear magnetic resonance structural data, the BioMedResBank (BMRB), a biological NMR data repository, the Yeast Resource Center Public Data Repository (YRC PDR), repository for experimental data from baker’s yeast, and the Central Aspergillus Data Repository (CADRE), a repository for genomic data from Aspergillus. However, as discussed above, ideas are a form of intellectual property and as such have significant potential commercial value (patents, trade secrets, etc.) In order to realize this value, it may be necessary to restrict communication of ideas and materials outside the research team as, for example, in the early stages of the patent process or in the early stages of the scientific publication process for which novelty is an important review criterion. Some repositories sensitive to the researcher’s need to protect the novelty of their work will allow researchers to deposit data and agree not to release it until it has been published. Concerns have driven the NIH to issue a policy statement regarding the sharing of research materials for biomedical research (see: NIH Policy on Sharing of Model Organisms for Biomedical Research.) The point here being that this is a good example of an area in which there is ongoing active debate.


  • As a student working in someone else’s research laboratory, it is important for you to find out what your advisor’s policies are regarding the sharing of research materials and follow them.
  • It isn’t a wise idea to discuss unpublished results whether they are yours or those of a lab mate with anyone outside your research group without first obtaining your advisor’s permission.

Industrial Sponsorship of Academic Research

Industrial sponsorship of research is increasingly commonplace in colleges and universities. Such sponsorship can be invaluable for all involved – providing students not only financial support but also firsthand insights into industry. Such sponsorship though often comes at a cost, the relationship may result in conflicts of interest that can impact you as a student. For example, presentation and/or publication of research findings may be delayed for an extended period of time – months even years - or may be prohibited by the company in an effort to protect, develop, and commercialize the technologies involved.

Personal Misrepresentation

Personal misrepresentation is a form of misconduct in which an individual misrepresents his/her qualifications, technical skills, and/or professional or educational achievements. The issue arises most frequently on resumes or curriculum vitae (academic version of a resume). Examples of personal misrepresentation include:

  • Inflating one’s grade-point average (GPA), class rank, honors;
  • Claiming expertise in a technical skill when one has only a superficial acquaintance with the technique or instrument; and/or
  • Listing publications that have not yet even been written as “in preparation” or even more serious “submitted” or “in press.”

There are several important issues here. First, the fundamental problem with doing any of the above is that it is willful, considered, and dishonest as such it calls into question your moral character. Second, when an employer looks to hire someone with a specific skill, it is because they need someone with the expertise now to solve existing problems. If you don’t have the skills required, then you won’t be able to perform competently and most likely won’t have the job very long even if you were to be successful in getting hired. Consequently, the bottom line is that it is critical to accurately convey your qualifications. Don’t overstate your skills and/or accomplishments.

Perhaps no case is more gut-wrenching than the story told in 2000 by Joel Hardi in the Chronicle of Higher Education of Mr. Puneet Bhandari, a then Columbia University undergraduate, who in fall 1998 went to his anthropology professor Dr.Greg Downey with a story about why he was falling behind in his course. Mr. Bhandari told Dr. Downey that he and his twin brother, Parag, had been in a car accident and that his twin was on life support. Over the semester, as Mr. Bhandari fell behind, the story grew more grim with Parag eventually dying. Later, Mr. Bhandari asked Dr. Downey for a letter of recommendation for medical school in which Dr. Downey of course praised Mr. Bhandari’s courage in the face of his twin’s death. Apparently, Mr. Bhandari when asked about his brother in a medical school interviewer, told the interviewer his twin, an investment banker, was doing well. Confused, the interviewer contacted Columbia which initiated an investigation that revealed that Mr. Bhandari had told the same story in at least two other courses and which led to Mr. Bhandari’s dismissal from Columbia. Tragically one week after a story appeared in a local newspaper: Mr. Bhandari committed suicide by jumping in front of a train.


J. Hardi. (2000) Chronicle of Higher Education. April 14. "Student Who Was Suspended for Fabricating Twin's Death Loses Suit Against Columbia U."
J. Hardi. (2000) Chronicle of Higher Education. April 25. "Columbia U. Is Shaken by Suicide of Student Suspended for Fabricating Brother's Death."

General Guidelines for Ethical Decision Making

General Guidelines for Ethical Decision Making

It is useful when making ethical decisions to understand that different considerations enter the picture for each of us. Nonetheless, there are some overarching principles we can use in approaching ethical decision making. The effect of the actions on

  • the decision maker (egoism);
  • everyone potentially involved (utilitarianism); and
  • the fundamental principles (deontology)

represent three major systems of theoretical ethical systems.

One approach to ethical decision making is to consider the effect of your decision on yourself as the decision maker, anyone else potentially involved, and the bigger picture – the impact of your actions on your institution, your profession, and the world. Once you understand the potential impact of your decision on yourself and others then you will be in a better position to make a decision. Before making a decision, make sure that you first get all the facts about the situation, identify as all the alternative actions as possible, evaluate each possible decision, consult others, if at all possible, and then make a decision.

It is always a wise idea to seek the counsel of others around you who may have more and/or a wider array of experiences and/or who may be better able to be impartial about the issue or event. Do you know to whom you can go if something goes wrong? Do you have someone with whom you can discuss sensitive issues in confidence? Whenever possible try to work through those in your organization and work up the organizational ladder. For example, for issues relating to your group, consider consulting your research advisor first.

When faced with an ethical dilemma, the following are some useful questions to consider:

  • What is the action or inaction that is the cause for concern?
  • Who or what may be affected?
  • How will they be affected? (i.e., what are the possible consequences?)
  • Are there any laws, regulations written or unwritten that may apply?
  • What actions might be taken and what would the consequences of these actions be?
  • Can anything be done to prevent this from reoccurring or to minimize the severity of the consequences?

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
--poet and philosopher George Santayana

After you have made a decision, make it a point to reflect on the outcome of your decision. The only way you can change the future is by actively affecting change in how you think/reason and how you act: Are you satisfied with how your decision turned out? What lessons did you learn?


Human Subjects Research

If your research project involves the use of human beings as research subjects then your project must be designed skillfully to protect the health and well-being of your human subjects and it must be reviewed by your institution before you begin your experimental work. The review system we use today in conducting research involving human subjects is the direct outcome of the 1976 Belmont Report which identified three basic principles

  • Respect for persons
  • Beneficence; and
  • Justice

as foundational to the ethical conduct of research involving people as subjects. Making these judgments, the Committee determined that the conduct of studies using human subjects must therefore address certain requirements:

  • informed consent – the human subject must be competent to consent and informed concerning what will happen to them so that they can, if they choose to, (voluntary) consent;
  • systematic assessment of risks and benefits; and
  • equitable selection of subjects both socially and individually.

A good example of the importance of our review system is provided by a now classic study designed by Dr. Wendell Johnson, a well known and highly regarded speech pathologist ((2001). Boston Globe. June 12, p. A20. "Secret Experiment Created Stutterers.") In the late 1930’s Dr. Johnson, ironically himself a chronic stutterer, hypothesized that stuttering arose not from genetic predisposition but from environmental conditioning. Children at a small private orphanage were separated into two groups – a control group, who received positive reinforcement, and the experimental group, who were harangued about their speech. The majority of the latter group became chronic stutterers. While the study findings eventually led to the development of a theory that has helped many children overcome childhood stuttering, it unwittingly condemned many uninformed, vulnerable study participants to a life of pain and suffering with a serious speech impediment. If you wish to learn more about this incident, often referred to as the Tutor Study, here is a link to a thoughtful web-based resource that discusses the case as well as a number of other questionable human subjects studies:

If your research project will involve studying people (observation, survey, medical records, blood or tissue samples, etc.) whether the work is funded or unfunded, then you will need to submit your research protocol for approval to the Institutional Review Board (IRB) before you can begin work to determine whether or not your work adequately addresses these important issues. This is a federal requirement mandated by the United States Department of Health & Human Services’ Office for Human Research Protections (HSS - OHRP) intended to protect the safety and rights of the human subjects involved in federally funded research studies.

First, you should obtain a written copy of your institution’s human subjects policies and procedures and make sure that you understand them. You will likely be required to complete some form of training. Many institutions require anyone involved in human subjects research to complete the online National Institutes of Health (NIH) course entitled "Protecting Human Research Participants" which is available at URL:
(note: you will be required to register online in order to access the course materials). Next, you will need to file an application for study approval through your local IRB (see below). Once your application is approved, you can begin your study.

Typical IRB Application

Although the details may vary somewhat from institution to institution, an application for IRB approval usually requires the following information:

  • Goals and objectives of the research study;
  • Description of the methods including any written materials that will be used to recruit human subjects to the study. Note that special considerations may come into play if you plan to use minors, prisoners, incompetent patients, or other vulnerable populations as research subjects. Important issues include a discussion of any criteria that will be used either to include or exclude potential subjects such as age, gender, race or ethnicity;
  • Thoughtful analysis of the potential risks and discomforts that might arise from participation in the study. This is particularly important when working with vulnerable populations such as younger children or mentally-disabled persons. Be sure to clearly describe the special safeguards that you will use in order to protect the rights and safety of vulnerable human subjects. These risks should be weighed against the potential benefits that are anticipated to result from the study and you should be prepared to demonstrate that your work will not harm your subjects or that it mill minimize the possible harm and maximize the possible benefits;
  • Identification of the experimental procedures, including examples of all forms, scripts, etc. that will be used to obtain and demonstrate informed consent; and
  • Discussion of the research methods that you will use to acquire your human subjects’ data and to safeguard it (privacy).

Expedited Review

If you are carrying out certain types of research which are generally viewed as posing a minimal risk to participants, the IRB may carry out an expedited review of your application. Examples of the types of research that fall into this category include:

  • Data collection via survey, interview, focus group, etc. for educational or psychological research; and
  • Non-invasive biological specimen collection of for example, excreta, saliva, skin cells, hair or fur, etc.

Useful Advice

  • It usually takes time for the IRB to review and approve applications. Depending on the number and nature of human subjects research studies at your institution, the review board may meet very infrequently, e.g., monthly. Call and find out what the IRB meeting schedule is at your institution and make appropriate allowance for this in designing your research plan.
  • If you make any changes to your research protocol after obtaining approval, you should notify the IRB board of the changes you would like to make and wait for their approval before implementing them.
  • If your study will be carried out over several years, you will need to renew your IRB approval at least once each year.
  • Performing research on human subjects without obtaining IRB approval is illegal and can jeopardize your institution’s ability to secure federal funding in support of its research programs. Also, note that research protocols cannot be approved retroactively. You must secure written approval for your study from the local IRB before you begin your project.


Pressures In Research

As in any profession there must be measures of success. Universal forms of currency in science and engineering include publications, patents, and research grants. For example, authorship on peer-reviewed technical papers is often used as a measure of a scientist’s research ability and productivity – “more” publications published in “better” quality journals. Grant applications may explicitly require a list of five-to-ten recent (this means within the past five years) publications in the area of the proposed research study. Job applications, job reviews, and professional advancement are also based at least in part on one’s publication record. It is important to at least be aware of these pressures since even if you don’t feel they relate to you directly they may exert a very real albeit indirect effect on you and your work through those around you including your colleagues, your supervisor, and/or the culture and climate of your workplace. A good example of the indirect effect that these pressures exert is the unconscious alignment of many academic researchers’ interests and research programs to conform to those of federal granting agencies or to the needs of industrial research and development, which represent current or potential funding sources, or away from cutting edge research problems such as stem cell research that may challenge social norms.

“Publish or perish.” This is a frequently spoken adage that speaks to the importance of publication in building a successful academic career. Tenure and promotion are often awarded at least in part based on research accomplishments. The pressure tends to be strongest at graduate research universities but is also increasingly strong at primarily undergraduate institutions (colleges). As an undergraduate, you may feel pressure, too. Your advisor may unconsciously communicate the need to write up your work. You may unconsciously put pressure on yourself because you may want to present or publish your research work or perhaps obtain a satisfactory letter of recommendation for graduate or pre-professional school or for permanent employment from your advisor. The important point to be made here is that no matter how strong the pressure may be, it doesn’t justify or ameliorate unethical behavior.

Research Involving Laboratory Animals

Biomedical researchers are in general agreement that the most accurate and useful information about biological systems is best derived from in vivo study. Potential health risks may make the study of human beings risky at best and there may be no non-animal alteratives. In these cases biomedical researchers must turn to the study of animals as model systems. As animals are generally regarded as sentient beings (Peter Singer - utilitarianism) capable of feeling hunger, pain, stress, etc., and possess “inherent value” (Tom Regan - deontology) researchers recognize that if animal research is to be done it must be carried out ethically and as humanely as possible.

Therefore there are standards that must be met by researchers whose projects involve the use of laboratory animals. The standards are similar to those used in research involving human subjects. The program must have:

  • A clear scientific purpose and objective that will benefit the health of other animals and/or humans;
  • be carried out using well designed, humane procedures by personnel who are knowledgeable concerning the proper care and handling of the species being studied.

Institutions carrying out biomedical research using laboratory animals generally have a program overseen by a committee identified as the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) in place to review research protocols involving animals, train researchers in the proper care and handling of laboratory animals and the possible risks and hazards associated with working with laboratory animals; and to oversee the health of researchers working with laboratory animals.

The standards outlined in the National Research Council’s Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals are generally regarded as the gold standard for animal care in research studies. The Public Health Service Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals describes the standards required of researchers and institutions whose research programs receive grant support from the National Institutes of Health. On an international level, the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care (AAALAC), oversees the voluntary accreditation and assessment of research institutions committed to responsible animal care and use.

You are strongly encouraged to contact your institution’s IACUC for specific information regarding animal care and use training and information on animal research protocol review. Legally, your research advisor will be responsible for any animal research protocols you use in your research. The following information is provided however to give you insight into the legal requirements for animal research protocols and their institutional review.

Typical Animal Research Protocol Application

Although the details may vary somewhat from institution to institution, an application to use animals in your research usually includes the following information:

  • Goals and objectives of the research study;
  • Identification of all of the individuals who will be involved in the study and the extent and nature of their experiences in working with the specific species you will use using the protocols you plan to employ;
  • Identification of the species you will study including the number of laboratory animals you will require, where and how they will be housed, fed, and exercised;
  • Evidence that you have sought alternatives and information as to how you will minimize the pain and discomfort of your research animals (e.g., sedation, anesthesia), if your research protocol will cause the research animals pain and/or discomfort; and
  • Detailed description of your experimental protocols involving research animals.

Useful Advice

  • It usually takes time for the IACUC to review and approve animal research protocols. Depending on the number and nature of animal research activity at your institution, the review committee may meet infrequently, e.g., monthly. Call and find out what meeting schedule is for the IACUC at your institution and make appropriate allowance for this in designing your research plans.
  • If you make any changes to your research protocol after obtaining approval, you should notify the IACUC of the changes you would like to make and wait for their approval before implementing them.
  • IACUC approval must be renewed every six months.
  • Performing research on animals without obtaining IACUC approval is illegal and can jeopardize your institution’s ability to secure federal funding in support of its animal research programs. Research protocols cannot be approved retroactively so be sure to secure written approval for your study from the IACUC before you begin your research project.

Where to Go for Help in Research Integrity Disputes

Where to Go for Help in Research Integrity Disputes
It is inevitable that you will encounter ethical challenges in the process of carrying out your research project. The most important thing to do when these situations arise is not to blindly react but to take time out to think through the issues as dispassionately as possible so you can make an informed decision with which you will be able to live now and in the future. In order to do this, it is important to know where you can go for information. Your first source should be your research advisor as he/she is most likely to understand not only the issues but the unique nature of the situation involved and therefore he/she should be in the best position to give you accurate information and thoughtful advice. However, if your issue involves your advisor, it is important to know where else you can go for help. Some departments have an ombudsman specifically for this purpose. In other departments, your undergraduate majors advisor may perform this function. If neither of these individuals can provide assistance, then you should consider consulting the Chair or Department Head.

Your Advisers

The first place you should go if at all possible is to your direct supervisor. He/she is likely in the best position to understand the problem and to provide direct assistance if you need it.

Sometimes students are uncertain about whether to and how to approach their research advisors when they have questions about ethics and research conduct. If you need help, then the best advice is to seek it out. So, if you see or have a problem, it is wise to consult your advisor, who likely has more experience and can at least advise you concerning where you should go for assistance.

That said be sure to think through the situation before you approach your advisor. It is important to understand that depending on the nature of the problem (if it involves criminal activity, harassment, etc.), your advisor may be obligated to take certain actions based on the information you provide him/her. Don’t assume that your advisor can or will keep your information confidential. Legal (his/her employer) and moral obligations may supersede his/her ability to keep your discussion confidential.


It is always wisest to try to work within the system at your workplace before going outside for help. If you are working at a college or university, start your discussions with your research advisor (discussed above), be sure to document all your conversations in writing. If you are not satisfied with your advisor’s response or if your dispute is with your advisor then consult someone in your department. Some departments have an ombudsman to whom you can go when disputes concerning research integrity arise. If you aren’t able to resolve the issues within your department, then consider bringing your case to your college or university’s committee on scientific integrity or the Dean of your college (at a graduate research university). You should be able to identify the appropriate person by consulting your college, university, or company’s website. As a last resort, if your research is federally funded by either the National Institutes of Health or by the National Science Foundation you can contact the Office of Research Integrity or the Office of the Inspector General, respectively.

Ethics Training

Your workplace should provide clear written statements, policies and procedures, and training about scientific integrity and accepted research laboratory practices which are periodically discussed and reassessed regularly to determine their effectiveness. Ethics training should be provided to all members of the greater research community at your workplace and/or academic institution in order to inform and educate all members. However, ethics training occurs today primarily informally through discussions with advisors, group meetings, and tutorials. Many departments provide explicit training in scientific integrity to new and entering graduate students, postdoctoral students and advanced undergraduates. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has a formal ethics training requirement for departments and programs administering NIH training grants. If you are working on an NIH grant, speak to your advisor to find out whether there is a formal training program available to you on scientific ethics. If your institution doesn’t provide formal training there are several good resources available through the internet:

Ethics Case Studies

In evaluating ethical dilemmas sometimes there are moral principles that lead to clear-cut courses of action. More often, however, there are several possible solutions each of which is morally acceptable. Our values and experiences, unique to each of us, will influence our views when considering ethical problems and identifying solutions. Since we must live with the decisions we make perhaps the most critical element of ethical decision making is being able to explain/justify the reasons behind our decisions. To help you in learning to do this, you will find a series of nine brief case studies in this section.:

Each brief case is based loosely on one or more real life incidents. Following each case references to articles about the real incidents on which these cases has been designed appear so you can learn more about the people and the incidents themselves.

You will find it most useful to discuss these case studies with your friends, other research group members, and/or your research advisor. If however, you are working alone, you can click on each question and view suggestions for possible answers that identify some of the many relevant issues.

Case Studies

It Only Takes a Second

Shortly after Christmas during the holiday break, Elise, a relatively new graduate student in Professor X’s group, with experience in "scale-up process safety" attempts to carry out a chemical reaction known by the greater research community to be dangerous as the reagent required can catch fire spontaneously upon contact with air. Specialized training is required to handle this reagent properly. Available to supervise Elise are two postdoctoral students both of whom have limited proficiency in English. Elise, wearing a sweater, dons safety goggles and nitrile gloves and eager to prove her worth, sets about to transfer two ounces of the reagent from one sealed container to another using a plastic syringe…

As a group, discuss each of the following questions:

1. As a new graduate student working in a new research environment and performing an unfamiliar procedure, are there any things that you think Elise should think about, plan for, or do before attempting to carry out this experiment?

Likely Elise wants very much to impress her new research advisor. This could make her takes risks that she might not take otherwise. Elise should make sure that she knows how to properly handle this new reagent by researching the reagent and obtaining hands-on training from her research advisor and/or the Office of Environmental Safety at her academic institution. She should also make sure that she is adequately clothed and that she has the appropriate safety measures in place in case of accidental exposure. Since Elise is unfamiliar with the procedure, it is important to carry it out the first time under ideal conditions. Ideal conditions would be when her advisor is present to supervise her, when senior group mates are around to provide such support, and when she is alert and focused. Holiday break is likely not the best time to carry out this procedure safely.

2. Reading the above scenario, in light of your answers to question 1, do you think that Elise has adequately covered all her bases? What, if any, problems do you see here?

Elise has not adequately covered her bases. She is working unsupervised, inappropriately garbed, without adequate knowledge, experience, and support. She does not have the appropriate safety measures in place and is likely exhausted. She is a safety disaster waiting to happen.

3. Would your concerns change if Elise were a postdoctoral student? An undergraduate student? A high school student?

Younger students should not be carrying out such a dangerous experiment without appropriate supervision by their research advisor. Even if Elise were a postdoctoral student and experienced in the handling of this reagent, she should work safely - dress appropriately, have the appropriate safety measures in place before beginning work, and work only when she is alert and focused.

Basis for the Case

Regrettably this story ended quite tragically for this talented young researcher. In the process of attempting to transfer 2-oz of t-butyl lithium, the plunger came out of the plastic syringe, splashing the young researcher’s gloves and sweater with the reagent, which burst into flames. The died 18-days later of second and third degree burns over forty-percent of her body. Five months later, the California division of the Occupational Safety and Health Admiinistration (OSHA) fined UCLA for 3 “serious” violations of workplace safety laws finding that the university had not properly addressed previous outstanding safety violations in that research group, that student had not been adequately trained and that she was not wearing the appropriate protective clothing (flame resistant lab coat) at the time of the fatal incident.

K. Christensen. (2009) Los Angeles Times May 5. “State Fines UCLA in Fatal Lab Fire.” Avail. URL:,0,6665233.story
Mitch. (2009) “Tert-Butyllithium Claims Fellow Chemist at UCLA.” Avail. URL:

Pinocchio's Nose

Tom, a pre-med. student, works two part-time jobs while attending Prestigious University. Tom finds his course load for the spring semester very challenging and he struggles to keep up with the assignments in his anthropology course. Tom knows anthropology instructor, Dr. B., thinks highly of him and that Dr. B has a reputation of being somewhat of a softy when it comes to "good" students. So, having missed the deadline for submission of an important paper, Tom goes to Dr. B with the story that he and his twin brother were in a serious car accident over the weekend. Tom explains that he didn't hand in the assignment because he has been at the hospital sitting at his brother's bedside in the intensive care unit where his brother is now on life support. Dr. B is of course very sympathetic and grants Tom an extension on the assignment. Later in the semester Tom once again finds himself behind the eight ball on an assignment...

Consider each of the following questions and evaluate the case study:

1. What is the action or inaction that is the cause for concern?

The cause for concern is that Tom finds himself for the second time this semester behind the eight-ball in completing an assignment for his anthropology course.

2. Who or what may be affected?

Tom's course grade, GPA, and taking a long term view likelihood of acceptance to medical school could potentially be affected.

3. How will they be affected? (i.e., what are the possible consequences?)

If Tom does nothing, he will likely do poorly on the assignment and this could deleteriously affect his course grade and therefore lower his GPA which could hurt his chances of getting to medical school.

If Tom speaks to Dr. B and asks for help, Tom could receive an extension which would give him time to turn in a good paper and earn a good grade. Dr. B. might also be able to help Tom figure out how to manage his time better so Tom will not fall behind in the future.

If he lies to Dr. B which is what he did the first time, he could get more sympathy and another bailout but he could also get caught. In this case, he could get in serious trouble, fail the course and perhaps even be thrown out of college. So, depending on what he does the consequences could be severe.

4. Are there any laws, regulations written or unwritten that may apply?

The unwritten rule "honesty is the best policy" applies here. Tom is more likely to receive the help he needs if he is honest with Dr. B. Dr. B may be able to help Tom better manage his limited time and he may be able to give Tom time to complete the assignment. Today many faculty include a policy on honesty in coursework in their course syllabi so if Tom lies again to Dr. B and gets caught in his lie, Tom could suffer severe consequences including failing the assignment and failing the course.

5. What actions might be taken and what would the consequences of these actions be?

Tom could tell Dr. B that he has fallen behind. If he does this Dr. B could either give him an extension, help Tom learn how to better manage his time, or he may not give Tom an extension.

6. Can anything be done to prevent this from reoccurring or to minimize the severity of the consequences?

Tom needs to find some way to better manage his time. Tom may not be able to see any options so it is important for him to discuss his problem with someone he trusts who can help him. Even if the person can't solve the problem, sometimes simply by discussing a problem out loud we are better able to identify possible solutions and even if solutions don't come to light immediately simply sharing a burden can provide needed perspective and lessen the intensity of our emotions. The person who can likely best help Tom with his immediate problem, the impending assignment, is Dr. B. However, Tom could also consult his parents, his academic advisor, a trusted teacher or a close friend.

Basis for Case Study 1
In 2000, tragically a Columbia University pre-med student committed suicide when his alleged dishonesty came to light. This case is based on a series of articles that appeared about the case in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2000:

J. Hardi. (2000) Chronicle of Higher Education. April 14. "Student Who Was Suspended for Fabricating Twin's Death Loses Suit Against Columbia U."

J. Hardi. (2000) Chronicle of Higher Education. April 25. "Columbia U. Is Shaken by Suicide of Student Suspended for Fabricating Brother's Death."

The Cost of Integrity

Dr. X, a distinguished structural engineer, received a phone call from an engineering student at a nearby college. The student expressed concern that Dr. X's famous skyscraper had a serious technical design flaw. At first, Dr. X dismissed the student's concerns outright but the conversation gets him thinking. Over the weekend, Dr. X sifts through his data and realizes the student is indeed correct - strong winds could cause this famous landmark to topple and in the process kill thousands of innocent people. Rectifying the problem would be no small task and would require notifying the building's owners, city officials, and the press and might negatively impact Dr. X's professional reputation.

Consider each of the following questions and evaluate the case study:

1. What is the action or inaction that is the cause for concern?

The cause for concern is that the building Dr. X designed could potentially topple in strong winds.

2. Who or what may be affected?

The building's owners and occupants of whom there are thousands (large number).

3. How will they be affected? (i.e., what are the possible consequences?)

The building occupants could be maimed or killed. The building's owners would be ruined. Dr. X's professional reputation and career would certainly be ruined and he could also face imprisonment and civil lawsuits.

4. Are there any laws, regulations written or unwritten that may apply?

Certainly if the building collapsed and people died, Dr. X would be guilty of many counts of murder. There are likely many laws and regulations that would also apply. Likely the code of ethics for Dr. X's profession holds its members responsible for ensuring public safety.

5. What actions might be taken and what would the consequences of these actions be?

Dr. X can go to the building owners and inform them of the problem and of what needs to be done in order to fix the skyscraper.

6. Can anything be done to prevent this from reoccurring or to minimize the severity of the consequences?

Certainly by informing the owners as soon as possible Dr. X will minimize the severity of the consequences. Dr. X should also carefully review his calculations to determine how/why he made the error in the first place. This will allow him to make sure that he doesn't make the same mistake again in the future.

Basis for Case Study 2

This case is based on the true life story of Dr. William LeMessurier, a famous structural engineer who consulted on the construction of the 59-story N.Y.C. CitiCorp Tower and was confronted with the possibility that he had made a serious error that had the potential to not only possibly bring down the tower but also irreversibly harm his professional reputation and career:

E. Karagianis. (1999) MIT Spectrum: 11, p. 3. "The Right Stuff. A Question of Ethics."

"Borrowing" Without Permission

Lisa, a postdoctoral student in Prof. X's lab is told that she will not be re-appointed when her current 1-year contract expires. Lisa feels that Prof. X has the funds to support her but that he simply doesn't like her and that is why he is not reappointing her. Angry with Prof. X and determined to get back at him, Lisa decides that she will take her lab notebooks, some lab supplies, and several critical laboratory reagents when she leaves. Lisa is surprised a month later when armed policemen show up at her parents' home to arrest her...

Consider each of the following questions and evaluate the case study:

1. What is the action or inaction that is the cause for concern?

Lisa has stolen laboratory notebooks, supplies, and reagents that are university property.

2. Who or what may be affected?

Lisa will certainly be affected by her own actions. By taking the notebooks, supplies, and reagents from the lab she has deprived Prof. X and the other members of her research group of access to the information in the notebooks and of the ability to use the reagents and supplies. The reagents and supplies Lisa took may present potential biological, chemical, radioactivity, and/or laser safety hazards. So, depending on where Lisa has stored these reagents and supplies they may present safety hazards to others in their vicinity as well.

3. How will they be affected? (i.e., what are the possible consequences?)

Lisa's research advisor and the other members of her research group may be unable to continue their research projects and/or publish their work. Any individuals in the vicinity of the reagents and supplies including Lisa could be in danger due to the safety hazards represented by the stolen materials.

4. Are there any laws, regulations written or unwritten that may apply?

Yes, by removing the notebooks, reagents, and supplies which are not her property from the laboratory, Lisa has committed theft. Lisa has certainly also violated the creed of her profession which likely holds its members to high standards of integrity in all aspects of conduct.

5. What actions might be taken and what would the consequences of these actions be?

Certainly, it looks like Lisa is going to be arrested. If it were in doubt, Lisa will certainly not be reappointed and she may be fired as versus simply not being reappointed. If the work is funded by NIH, she could be censured by the NIH. Likely her career as a scientist will be over. Depending on the circumstances, she may be imprisoned or face fines. If anyone is injured due to their exposure to the reagents, Lisa could face very serious charges, prison, and civil lawsuit.

6. Can anything be done to prevent this from reoccurring or to minimize the severity of the consequences?

Lisa's actions were rash. Lisa would have been wise to stop and consider the consequences of the actions she intended to take. When you are angry or tired or frustrated, confiding your concerns with trusted individuals is therapeutic and wise. Often others see things that we ourselves simply can't see in the heat of the moment. Sometimes simply the act of saying our concerns out loud to another human being gives us much needed perspective on the situation. At this point, there may be little that Lisa can do to mitigate the damage but certainly admitting that what she did was wrong, expressing a sincere willingness to do anything she could to rectify things, and facing the consequences of her actions would be good first steps in minimizing the severity of the consequences she will no doubt face.

Basis for Case Study 3

This case is based on two incidents and a series of articles that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2002 and 2006 describing several incidents in which students allegedly removed research materials from the academic laboratories in which they worked and the consequences of their actions on all involved:

C.E. Shoichet. (2002) Chronicle of Higher Education, July 31. "Former Research Assistant at Cornell U. Accused of Stealing Biological Materials to Take to China."

A.M. Borrego. (2002) Chronicle of Higher Education. June 20. "2 Scientists Who Worked in Harvard Professor's Lab Are Accused of Stealing Secrets."

A.K. Walters. (2006) Chronicle of Higher Education. April 17. "2 Scientists Admit They Stole Research Material from Harvard Lab."

It's All About Sharing...

Xian, a summer undergraduate research student at Big University, was flattered when a graduate student, Pingwei, at another university emailed him inquiring about his research. Since Xian had just finished writing a progress report for his research advisor, Xian sent it as an attachment to his email reply to Pingwei. Throughout the summer, Pingwei emails Xian several times asking very specific questions about Xian's work. Xian happily answers every question. The following spring Xian is surprised to see Pingwei's name on the by-line of a technical article in a leading scientific journal. Xian is even more surprised when he reads the article and sees text, figures and tables that were clearly taken word-for-word from Xian's summer progress report.

Consider each of the following questions and evaluate the case study:

1. What is the action or inaction that is the cause for concern?

Xian's concern is the apparent theft of his research by Pingwei as evidenced in the published paper..

2. Who or what may be affected?

Certainly Xian, Pingwei, Pingwei's advisor, Xian's advisor and possibly the other members of Xian's former laboratory may be affected by the publication of Xian's work. Depending on the source of the funding for Xian's project the funder may also be affected by the publication of the research.

3. How will they be affected? (i.e., what are the possible consequences?)

Since Pingwei has published work that is not his own, Pingwei's academic progress and career prospects will likely be negatively impacted if his crime becomes known. The reputation of Pingwei's research advisor may also be harmed since this took place while Pingwei was a graduate student in his group. Xian's advisor will likely not be able to publish Xian's work since it has already been published. If Xian was collaborating with other students in the laboratory then the theft of the research will likely also negatively impact their ability to publish as well.

4. Are there any laws, regulations written or unwritten that may apply?

Certainly Pingwei has violated the creed of his profession - integrity is a core element of most creeds. He has also certainly violated the ethical standards for his academic program.

5. What actions might be taken and what would the consequences of these actions be?

If Pingwei's misappropriation of the research became public, the paper would likely be retracted by his research advisor and Pingwei would likely be dismissed from his graduate program.

6. Can anything be done to prevent this from reoccurring or to minimize the severity of the consequences?

In hindsight, Xian could have forwarded Pingwei's original email of inquiry to Xian's research advisor and he could have spoken with his research advisor and asked him what if any information he could share with Pingwei. It would also have been a good idea to copy or blind copy all correspondence to his research advisor so his advisor would know what exactly Pingwei was requesting and what information Xian had shared. As a general rule, you should not disclose any information about your research without your advisor's prior permission. If the research is proprietary this can be a critical point.
At this point, Xian should go to his former advisor and give him all the emails that he sent to Pingwei so his advisor can decide what the best course of action is. Should Xian call or email Pingwei? Probably not a good idea. It is not likely that Pingwei is going confess and there is nothing that Xian is likely to say that is going to get Pingwei to confess.
What about Pingwei? At this point there is likely little that Pingwei can do to minimize the severity of the consequences of his actions. Certainly, going to his advisor and telling him what he has done, formally apologizing to Xian and his advisor, and accepting the consequences of his actions with good grace would represent steps in the right direction.

Basis for Case Study 4
It isn't always students who are naive about sharing their information. Recently in a first-person account detailed in the Chronicle of Higher Education a young assistant professor detailed the unexpected results of sharing her dissertation with a graduate student from another university who was doing related work on the same topic:

Copy and Paste...

Late in the afternoon, Lisa finally had a chance to Google for information on "problem-based learning" for her course assignment due the next morning. Though she was tired, she couldn't help but wonder when she noticed the same article appearing on the first two websites was almost identical word-for-word. Both websites were for education courses being taught by two different faculty at two different academic institutions located in different states. Curious, she emailed the authors of both papers concerning her observation and printed out a copy of both pages to bring with her to class the next morning.

Consider each of the following questions and evaluate the case study:

1. What is the action or inaction that is the cause for concern?

The cause for concern is that Lisa believes she has discovered a case of plagiarism involving a webpage for a course.

2. Who or what may be affected?

The professor whose work has been plagiarized has been affected and of course, the alleged plagiarist. The college or university where the plagiarist is employed may also be affected by the alleged plagiarist's actions.

3. How will they be affected? (i.e., what are the possible consequences?)

It is difficult to gauge the significance of the alleged plagiarism. Certainly, the alleged victim has not received credit for his/her work. The college or university where the alleged plagiarist is employed may receive negative press and their reputation may be negatively impacted as a result of the plagiarist's actions.

4. Are there any laws, regulations written or unwritten that may apply?

Yes, any printed material that you post on a webpage is automatically protected by U.S. copyright.

5. What actions might be taken and what would the consequences of these actions be?

Certainly universities and colleges take plagiarism and other acts of professional misconduct by faculty very seriously. Depending on the rank and tenure-status of the alleged plagiarist, he/she might be censured or could even be fired if it indeed turns out that he/she plagiarized the webpage.

6. Can anything be done to prevent this from reoccurring or to minimize the severity of the consequences?

Aside from education, it appears that there is little that can be done to prevent plagiarism. Certainly by the time one becomes a degreed professional, you are expected to know what plagiarism is. It is for this reason that the consequences of plagiarism are so severe.

Basis for Case Study 5
There are many examples of alleged plagiarism. Harvard undergraduate author, Ms. Kaavya Viswanathan was accused of plagiarism and copyright infringement. The resulting publicity uncovered multiple offenses and ultimately led to the withdrawal of her first novel from the market by her publisher, Little Brown & Company.

Zhou, David. (2006) Harvard Crimson. April 23. "Student's Novel Faces Plagiarism Controversy."

Students aren't the only ones who commit plagiarism. In 2000 a college student doing research on the internet discovered marked similarities between speeches given by two college presidents, one speech having been delivered more than ten years earlier. The alleged plagiarist ultimately acknowledged the close similarities between the speeches but argued that someone else had prepared his speech for him. Interestingly, the same individual came under fire subsequently for alleged plagiarism.

J. Basinger. (2000) Chronicle of Higher Education. May 19. "The Similarities of 2 Presidents' Papers."

Honesty's Always the Best Policy

Raj knew he was smart. His classmates always turned to him for help on assignments and he always knew the answers to the questions his teachers asked in class. Raj just didn't study for tests so his grades were often mediocre. He knew he could do better in school, it was just that school was so... well, boring.
School was coming to an end for the year and Raj needed to get a good job this summer, after all this was the end of his junior year. He desperately wanted to work at the famous Research Institute. Raj felt that if he got a job there as a summer intern, it would really boost his chances of getting admitted to the graduate engineering program of his choice. He knew the institute hired very few summer interns and generally these were students from private schools who had excellent academic records and high standardized test scores. So, Raj decided to "tweak" his resume. He rounded his GPA up from 3.0 to a more respectable 3.5 and listed his SAT scores as 700 verbal and 820 math (in reality they were 600 verbal and 720 math). Raj reasoned that these changes really didn't matter because he would show them who he really was through the quality of the work he did for the Institute once he was hired...

Consider each of the following questions and evaluate the case study:

1. What is the action or inaction that is the cause for concern?

The cause for concern is Raj's dishonesty in misrepresenting his academic record and accomplishments on his resume.

2. Who or what may be affected?

Raj is likely to be affected. If Raj is hired instead of someone else, he has affected that person as well.

3. How will they be affected? (i.e., what are the possible consequences?)

Raj could be hired and his personal misrepresentation might never be discovered or it could be uncovered in which case Raj would likely be terminated. If Raj is hired and another deserving candidate is turned away that person will likely be deprived of the opportunity to work at the Institute.

4. Are there any laws, regulations written or unwritten that may apply?

Yes, when you complete an application for most jobs you sign a form stating that everything you have said is true so if Raj does this he will be violating hiring law. He is also certainly violating the code of ethics for his profession as in most codes integrity is a core principle.

5. What actions might be taken and what would the consequences of these actions be?

If Raj's dishonesty is uncovered, he would likely be fired and his actions might be reported back to his college/university.

6. Can anything be done to prevent this from reoccurring or to minimize the severity of the consequences?

Yes, Raj should think through the consequences of misrepresenting himself and discuss his situation with a trusted friend or advisor before he makes a terrible mistake. While Raj's GPA may not be high enough, certainly he should be able to obtain a summer internship. By sharing his concerns with a trusted friend or advisor, Raj may be able to identify unique skills and strengths that he can showcase, without embellishment, on his resume. Since Raj is a college student there is no value in reporting his SAT scores, which are not all that bad and certainly do not need to be inflated.

Basis for Case Study 6
In spring of 2007, Marilee Jones, the MIT Director of Undergraduate Admissions, was forced to resign after it came to light that she misrepresented her own educational history - claiming to have earned degrees from several well known universities at the start of her career in an effort to boost what she felt was an inadequate resume and get the job.

E. Hoover and S. Millman. (2007) Chronicle of Higher Education. May 11. "Shocking Admission. A Popular Dean at MIT Lied About Her Credentials, But Her Message Resonated With Many Supporters."

There have actually been quite a few similar incidents. Another one you might also have heard about was the highly publicized case of Dr. Joseph Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize winning history professor at Mt. Holyoke College (eventually fired) who for years misrepresented himself to students as a Vietnam veteran in a course he taught on the Vietnam war.

A. M. Cox. (2001) Chronicle of Higher Education. June 29. "Noted Historian Misled Students That He Was Vietnam Veteran."

Sometimes Silence is Golden

Tom was working with supervision provided by a graduate student Mr. Li on a proprietary summer research project in Professor Zhou's lab which enjoyed private financial support. The project which was nearing completion was an exciting one on a currently hot topic in nanoscience and the results were so exciting that the university and the company had jointly filed for an international patent. As the project involved significant intellectual property everyone working on the project including Tom had been required to sign a confidentiality agreement at the outset. One day Tom overheard Mr. Li discussing the research project with a friend who is a graduate student from another research group in the department at the university.

Consider each of the following questions and evaluate the case study:

1. What is the action or inaction that is the cause for concern?

The source of concern is that Tom believes that Mr. Li, another member of his group may have violated the confidentiality agreement.

2. Who or what may be affected?

Since the project is a team-based project, Prof. Zhou and the whole team may be negatively affected by Mr. Li's violation.

3. How will they be affected? (i.e., what are the possible consequences?)

It is really difficult to know what the significance is at this point. The seriousness of the situation will depend on 1) what Mr. Li discussed with his friend; 2) how many times he discussed the project with his friend; 3) whether or not Mr. Li has discussed the project with any other people, and; 4) how much information he shared with them about the project.

4. Are there any laws, regulations written or unwritten that may apply?

Since everyone signed a confidentiality agreement, which is a legally binding contract, there are laws that will apply here. Breaking them opens the university up to legal prosecution by the funder, should they choose to take legal action.

5. What actions might be taken and what would the consequences of these actions be?

It is difficult to know what actions might be taken at this point and what the consequences might be.
Likely if Prof. Zhou determined that there was a significant breach of contract, he would have to inform the university and the company. Professor Zhou could lose his research funding for the project and the company could sue the university for breach of contract. Mr. Li could lose his graduate assistantship and he could be terminated from the graduate program depending on what information and how much information he has shared with others about the project.

6. Can anything be done to prevent this from reoccurring or to minimize the severity of the consequences?

Certainly Tom should go to his advisor and tell him of his concerns. Tom may be reluctant to do so for fear that his advisor and/or team mates may question Tom's loyalty. He could be labeled a "whistle blower" by his teammates.
When working on proprietary projects, it is much safer and easier simply to refrain from telling anyone anything about the project instead of trying to decide what if any information you can safely share about it. If you are uncomfortable not being able to discuss your work then do not work on proprietary projects.

Basis for Case Study 7
The basis for this case study is a patent dispute between a former faculty member at the University of Connecticut and a private company, Sequoia Sciences, Inc. with whom the professor had a confidentiality agreement. When the company refused to share inventorship of a potentially valuable patent with the professor, the professor allegedly violated a signed confidentiality agreement disclosing the name of the compound on which he had been working in a footnote to a paper he presented at an international conference.

K.S. Mangan. (2006). Chronicle of Higher Education. January 27. "Professor Sued for Revealing Data."

It's All the Same...

Lisa was puzzled by the image of the gel featured in the research article in the current issue of Cell that she was reading. The bands in the two critical lanes on the gel that established the success of the pulse-chase experiment seemed virtually identical. Increasing the magnification of the image Lisa could see that the two lanes were indeed the same down to the size, shape, and tailing of each and every band. Increasing the magnification still further showed discontinuities in the background on one lane suggesting the image of that lane had been digitally copied and pasted onto the gel image. Confused she wasn't sure exactly what to think. She was a summer undergraduate research student and admittedly a novice in this field of research. Lisa reasoned that the article had been peer-reviewed and was published in one of the top journals in the field so it didn't seem possible that the data could have been fabricated or manipulated in any way. She was concerned that if she showed the article and shared her concerns with her research mentor that her research mentor might either think she was incredibly stupid or incredibly narcissistic.

Consider each of the following questions and evaluate the case study:

1. What is the action or inaction that is the cause for concern?

Lisa thinks that she has found an instance of scientific misconduct, specifically, fabrication or falsification of data in a published technical article.

2. Who or what may be affected?

All the authors on the paper since they are responsible for the integrity of the publications bearing their names will certainly be affected. Other members of the research laboratories in which the research was done may also be affected. Finally anyone in the field who is depending on the authenticity of the work on which to base their own scientific inquiries or findings is likely to be affected.

3. How will they be affected? (i.e., what are the possible consequences?)

Since all authors are responsible for the quality of their published work, the authors' professional reputation may suffer. The quality of their other publications may also be questioned. Remember the old adage "guilt by association"? Well, as unfair as it may seem the integrity of the work of other members of the laboratories involved in the fraudulent research may also be questioned. If the study turns out to be fraudulent, then advancements in the field might be delayed until researchers discover the fraud. This would cost those researchers unnecessary time, money, and effort.

4. Are there any laws, regulations written or unwritten that may apply?

Universities usually investigate alleged instances of scientific misconduct very carefully. In general, the university will identify an inquiry team consisting of senior researchers who have no past or current research ties with the principal investigator to investigate the alleged misconduct. The team will interview all of the individuals involved in the incident, review all of the written records including laboratory notebooks, reports and publications, and prepare a written report summarizing their findings within a finite time period. If the research was funded by the U.S. Government, then The Office of the Inspector General might investigate.

5. What actions might be taken and what would the consequences of these actions be?

Consequences would likely be quite severe and could include censure, loss of professional credibility, loss of research funding, termination of employment, fines, and even imprisonment.

6. Can anything be done to prevent this from reoccurring or to minimize the severity of the consequences?

This is certainly the so-called "million dollar question." Can a principal investigator detect and pre-empt a skillful individual determined to perpetrate scientific fraud? Certainly, a principal investigator can go a long way toward preventing problems by providing hands-on training, encouraging good science, and maintaining a healthy, open, positive spirit of inquiry in the laboratory and by insisting that work be replicated independently in the lab before publication. One thing is clear fraud does happen even in the laboratories of the most highly respected scientists.

Basis for Case Study 8

In this case, a postdoctoral student allegedly "edited" a series of gel images in an article submitted for publication. A spot check by a journal editor caught the image manipulation and ultimately led to the discovery that the young scientist had done this on three other publications as well. The student lost her job but more importantly because the research impacted had been support by funding from the National Institutes of Health, the major source of financial support for biomedical research, the postdoctoral student was censured and prohibited from receiving NIH support for 5 years.

J.R. Young. (2008) Chronicle of Higher Education, May 29. "Journals Find Fakery in Many Images Submitted to Support Research."

What Does Research Integrity Require of You?

Research integrity requires a lot from all of us in the greater scientific community. As a student researcher, you will find that it means:

  • Making thoughtful use of research time by coming to lab on time, prepared to work, being engaged in your work while you are there (not fooling around), and not leaving early;
  • Learning to use equipment properly and following the standard operating procedures for the equipment to ensure that the results you obtain are meaningful, that the instrument is maximized, and to ensure the safety of those working around you in the laboratory;
  • Carefully recording all your work in your laboratory notebook;
  • Asking questions about anything you don’t understand about the procedures you use in lab not just for your own sake but for the safety of others working in the lab around you;
  • Sharing and not withholding your research results from other group members so everyone can grow in collective wisdom and understanding and so advance the research mission of your research group;
  • Respect all research group members by listening to their ideas, accepting their help when you need it and helping them in turn when they need help with their experiments, and sharing credit with them when it is due;
  • Acknowledging and owning up to your personal limitations when you encounter challenges in the research laboratory by not creating, manipulating, erasing, or in any manner altering laboratory data and reporting all of your results to your research advisor; and
  • Confronting and not ignoring acts of suspected research misconduct that occur around you.