Study examines researchers’ practices

Intense competition for funding could be making researchers desperate for results.

Jerret Raffety

The integrity of scientific research across the nation might be questionable, according to a study by Minnesota researchers.

Roughly one-third of researchers polled admitted to engaging in questionable research practices within the last three years, in a recent study conducted by researchers from the University and the HealthPartners Research Foundation.

The study polled 3,200 National Institute of Health researchers, ranging in research experience, across the country to see if they had ever engaged in unethical research practices.

Few researchers admitted to research misconduct as defined by the U.S. Office of Science and Technology as “fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism,” the report said. The majority of researchers polled admitted to compromising behaviors outside the government’s definition.

To address the problem, people will have to look at many areas of the scientific system for research, said Brian Martinson, an investigator and researcher for HealthPartners Research Foundation.

“We’re asking about a range of behaviors (in the study), and there’s a range of motivations that could be contributing to each,” Martinson said.

Intense competition for funding could be making some researchers desperate for results, he said.

“In many ways, researchers are being asked to get more money to support their research while universities are receiving less from the State Legislatures,” Martinson said. “This is causing universities to look to their professors to cover their salaries with grants and to create more patentable inventions to avoid having double-digit tuition increases every year.”

Another problem is the increasing commercialization of scientific research, Martinson said. With fewer federal dollars available, many researchers must look to commercial bodies for financial support, which can change the nature of the research to being driven by profit and not scientific discovery.

Several factors also indirectly damage many researchers’ work because they encourage questionable behavior, such as emphasizing some research over other research for political reasons.

Peer reviewing is one factor that can interfere in research, Martinson said.

“Peer reviewers have a conflict of interest – they are in the same competition for resources as those they are reviewing,” Martinson said.

The study also showed midcareer scientists were admitting more to compromising behaviors.

That might be a matter of opportunity, said Melissa Anderson, a professor in the department of educational policy and administration, who contributed to the study.

“Younger research scientists and the postdoctoral fellows are not yet confronted with such decisions (that could lead to compromising behavior),” Anderson said.

Anderson said there was no way to know if the problem had gotten better or worse over time because no one has done a large-scale study that examined scientist’s reports about their own behavior.

Raymond De Vries, a professor from the Center for Bioethics and a researcher who contributed to the study, said addressing the compromising behavior is not a matter of policing researchers with the idea of eliminating a few bad apples.

“The environment of science needs change – we have to ask if we’re turning up the heat on scientific competition too much by producing too many Ph.D.s, which makes funding and journal spaces rarer and harder to get,” De Vries said. “We need a better way to fund research that doesn’t allow the interest of industry to influence science.”

Tim Mulcahy, University vice president for research, said many institutions have been doing a better job at training faculty members and graduate students concerning research ethics, but there is always room for improvement.

“Many of the behaviors cited in the study reflect gray areas, and we make people aware that these gray areas exist,” Mulcahy said. “The authors have done the community a great service by identifying areas where we need to focus more on – to identify areas where we need to shed light on and take them out of the gray zone.”