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frequently asked questions

What is research misconduct?

Traditionally, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Public Health Service has narrowly defined research misconduct as conduct that calls into question the integrity of a body of scientific work. This includes fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results. See 42 CFR 93.103.

Fabrication is making up data or results and recording and/or reporting them. Falsification is manipulating research materials, equipment, or processes, or changing or omitting data or results, such that he research does not accurately reflect the research record compiled. Plagiarism is the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit. Honest error or a difference of opinion is not research misconduct. 42 CFR 93.103(d).

While most institutions have incorporated this tripartite definition into their own internal research misconduct policy, public and private institutions may broaden PHS’s standard definition. Before responding to an allegation of research misconduct, you should review the relevant policies that may govern the allegations.

Who is responsible for identifying research misconduct in the scientific community? Is this the job of the academic institutions?

Not exclusively. While institutional recipients of federal funds play a central role in detecting and evaluating allegations of research misconduct, institutions are not the only bodies charged with policing scientific researchers. To be sure, institutions bear a heavy burden. To receive federal funds, institutions must adopt written policies and procedures conforming to ORI regulations and take “all reasonable and practical specific steps to foster research integrity,” including educating research members of their individual reporting obligations. See 42 CFR 93.301 & 93.302. Institutional compliance must be reported annually to ORI in writing. See 42 CFR 93.302.

But despite the heavy burdens imposed on grantee institutions by ORI, historically, research misconduct allegations have originated with individual scientists, whether colleagues, competitors, or sometimes even collaborators of the accused researcher – not the institution’s dedicated research integrity branch. Other times, third-party “watchdog” organizations committed to scouring the internet looking for potential research misconduct report concerns directly to the journal publishing the relevant data or, often on an anonymous basis, to the institution. And yet another path is for the funding agencies themselves to internally investigate potential fraud, often reported by a whistleblower, through their respective inspector-generals (note ORI delegates this responsibility to the Department of Justice or the HHS inspector-general).

But regardless of who first reports concerns – whether a watchdog, disgruntled colleague, institution or law enforcement – the accuser is under no obligation to vet allegations with the accused before making a report to the institution’s research integrity officer or directly to a publication. This process ensures that an accused researcher typically does not learn of the allegations until the initial step of the institutional process, the “Inquiry,” is in full swing. See 42 CFR 93.307(b)

Who is charged with deciding whether research misconduct was committed?

There are two oversight bodies: the institution where the federally-funded research has taken place; and, (2) the Office of Research Integrity. At the institutional level, research misconduct proceedings are usually conducted by the Research Integrity Officer (“RIO”) and/or the Vice Provost for Research, often in conjunction with members of the institution’s legal team. The RIO is responsible for ensuring the internal review, inquiry, and/or investigation adheres to the institutional procedure. If necessary, this includes notifying ORI that an inquiry has proceeded to an investigation. Upon accepting a complaint, ORI may direct the institution to continue investigation or may conduct its own investigation. Depending on the fact-finding conducted by ORI, ORI may impose discipline or offer a settlement agreement addressing the conduct of a respondent.

I have heard about the National Health Institute and the National Science Foundation’s “no tolerance” stance on sexual and other forms of harassment – how does this affect an institution’s review of research misconduct?

Institutions receiving federal funding are on the hook for promptly and adequately investigating sexual harassment allegations. A term or condition of all NIH and NSF grant awards is that the recipient institution foster a work environment conducive to high quality research and urge institutions to report people to the appropriate authorities. Moreover, institutions must assure their compliance with civil rights protections prior to receiving federal funds.

What this means is that institutions not only have to address allegations internally, and quickly, but they must also keep the funding agency apprised of that investigation. While NIH and NSF differ slightly in when and what information must be reported to the agency, grantee institutions generally must notify the funding agency of any change in a key personnel (Principal Investigator or “PI” or co-PI)’s employment status, such as administrative or disciplinary action, including a decision to limit access to the institution’s facilities or resources or modifying employment in response to allegations of sexual harassment.

Institutions should also be aware that their response may be subject to scrutiny as well. Sexual harassment allegations against an awardee may also be brought to the funding agency directly, rather than to the grantee institution. In that case, the funding agency will alert the institution and take all appropriate actions – including requiring the institution implement a change in personnel if key people found guilty of sexual harassment of the institution is found not in compliance with applicable laws and regulations.

What is ORI?

ORI (which stands for the Office of Research Integrity) is the federal body within the Department of Health and Human Services ("HHS") that is primarily responsible for investigating allegations of research misconduct involving federal funds and imposing punishments.

When must an institution contact ORI about allegations of research misconduct?

An institution must alert ORI any time it conducts an “Institutional Investigation” (often the second phase launched after an institutional inquiry yields sufficient evidence of potential research misconduct) and must likewise provide ORI with a copy of its written findings, including the name and position of the respondent, its “Inquiry Report.” ORI may request additional information after receiving the initial notice. 42 CFR § 93.309 (a)(b).

ORI’s authority to investigate allegations of research misconduct and make findings is virtually unfettered. Once ORI learns of allegations (usually by virtue of the institution’s “Investigation Report”) it can, among other things: defer to the institutional fact-finding process; consider or ignore any evidence it wants; obtain additional evidence or information; conduct independent analyses; develop new theories; and, make its own findings.

Are institutions bound by ORI’s regulations in evaluating allegations of research misconduct?

Under PHS regulations, institutions receiving federal funding must meet certain legal requirements to implement policies aimed at fostering responsible research practicing and address potential misconduct. Institutions may impose upon its researchers different or greater requirements in addition to those required under PHS regulations. Thus, it is possible that an institution may find certain conduct actionable under its own policies, even while it does not rise to the level of research misconduct under PHS standards. Even a finding by ORI that certain conduct would not be actionable under PHS regulations will not affect the institution's internal investigatory efforts, nor any finding or any administrative actions that it imposes.

What options do institutions have for redressing harm that does not fall within the definition of research misconduct?

More and more it is the case that institutions receive complaints of unethical or questionable practices that, while unadvisable, do not rise to the level of research misconduct. Institutions, often faced with vigorous opposition from the accused researcher, should freely acknowledge those circumstances. While continuation of the research misconduct proceedings, or a referral to ORI, may not be warranted in these circumstances, an institution’s hands are not tied. Institutions may explore other avenues of redress, such as legal actions for claims such as breach of contract, copyright infringement, and intentional interference claims. Institutions may also avail itself of any and all disciplinary actions already written in its policies. These policies and procedures may go above and beyond the requirements set by ORI and address the “grey areas” of research, such as alleged self-plagiarism, sabotage, sloppy lab practices, and other deceptive or unethical behaviors in the lab.

What if I publish a paper with a mistake in it? Have I committed research misconduct?

Probably not. Federal regulations do not consider “honest errors” research misconduct. That is because a finding of research misconduct is only found where there is an intent to mislead the reader in some way. Therefore, true “honest errors” (i.e., ones that are both unintentional and reasonable) are excluded from the definition of research misconduct. But not every unintentional mistake meets ORI’s definition of honest error. An error that results from a researcher’s reckless conduct (conduct that he/she should have known was likely to result in an error) may still be research misconduct even if it the researcher did not envision or mean for the mistake to occur. Similarly, a researcher who takes affirmative steps to prevent himself/herself from learning of errors in published research (i.e., remaining willfully blind) cannot claim the “honest error” defense even if he/she did not technically know of the errors before publication.

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