Misconduct: lower ranks take most of the blame

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Sir

The Commentary article by Brian C. Martinson and colleagues, “Scientists behaving badly” (Nature 435, 737–738; 2005), highlights the need for an appropriate response in order to preserve good science practices at the institutional level. Although formal guidelines exist for misconduct investigations in universities, there are no checks or balances, or even public scrutiny, to ensure that the institution behaves appropriately. Ideally, universities should hand over authority to enforce good science guidelines to an independent body of informed, non-partisan reviewers unaffiliated with the institution under investigation.

Graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and junior research associates are too-frequent casualties of self-policing by institutions investigating scientific-misconduct cases. They are often less culpable than their senior colleagues, but naive about the convoluted investigatory process. A December 2004 newsletter from the US Office of Research Integrity (ORI) documents this disparity, revealing that just 15% of full professors were found guilty of fabrication, falsification or plagiarism (FFP) between 1994 and 2003, whereas junior researchers were held accountable 61–77% of the time. Compounding this rank bias, university misconduct inquiries are rarely conducted openly, yet still comply with ORI guidelines. This secrecy makes it difficult to protect the rights of junior whistleblowers.

It is interesting to learn from the survey by Martinson and colleagues that senior investigators seem more ready to admit indiscretions such as data duplication or inaccurate authorship delegation than FFP. It would be interesting to ask scientists in a misconduct survey about their willingness to disclose minor indiscretions and correlate their responses with rank. Like the recent ORI report, this would probably reflect the relative protection that a senior researcher's status provides.

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Clouthier, S. Misconduct: lower ranks take most of the blame. Nature 436, 460 (2005) doi:10.1038/436460d

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