10:24 AM

Making research integrity a priority

One-day summit at Ohio State brings in national leaders to discuss improving culture

Public trust in science depends on renewed efforts to protect the integrity of research, according to speakers at a Sept. 23 Ohio State University summit.

Experts involved in research from universities, funding agencies and scientific journals from around the country emphasized the need for a “culture of trust” around research and pledged to find ways to support that culture.

Without public trust, “we don’t have a research enterprise,” said Suzanne Rivera, vice president for research at Case Western Reserve University.

Problems of research misconduct can erode the public’s trust in science, and everyone involved needs to work on protecting the integrity of the process, Rivera said.

Rivera was one of 21 speakers at the one-day summit sponsored by Ohio State’s Office of Research. It was titled “Seeking Solutions in Research Integrity: A View from All Perspectives.”

The summit featured speakers from a variety of institutions, including Columbia University, Emory University, the Annals of Internal Medicine and the federal Office of Research Integrity, among others. It attracted more than 130 attendees from around the country.

Recently, there has been more public attention on cases of research misconduct from around the country, said Morley Stone, senior vice president for research at Ohio State.

“If you’re not struggling with one of these big issues right now at your institution, it is a not a matter of ‘if,’ it is a matter of ‘when,’” Stone said.

Bruce A. McPheron, Ohio State’s executive vice president and provost, said it is hard to tell whether there really has been an increase in research misconduct, or just better ways of detecting it.

“In this age of data sharing, online publication and new tools, there are more ways for people to manipulate science, but also more ways to evaluate science,” he said.

In his plenary talk, McPheron noted that scientists are all guided by one principle. “And that common principle is that we all seek some measure of truth.”

But the world of research is also driven by intense competition, which can lead some researchers astray. One thing that universities can do is to make sure that the reward system for faculty aligns with principles of truth and integrity, McPheron said.

“It is important to say that this is what we believe in,” McPheron said. “These are our expectations.”

While misconduct is a serious issue, it is not the only – or even the most common – reason for having to retract scientific papers.

“When we encounter problems, most of the time they are problems of sloppiness,” Rivera said. “The minority of cases we encounter have to do with deliberate, willful cheating.”

Jay Walsh, vice president for research at Northwestern University, agreed.

“We make mistakes as scientists all the time. We need to make sure that when we find those mistakes, we talk about them. That’s part of the scientific process,” Walsh said.

But as some retractions get more negative public attention in media outlets like Retraction Watch, some researchers might think twice before reporting errors, Rivera said.

“We could all do more to reward and celebrate people who do come forward to talk about errors and oversights,” she said.

More media and public attention to alleged misconduct also sometimes comes with demands for quick resolutions. But Stone noted that research misconduct investigations can sometimes take months or even years to complete.

Speakers noted that faculty accused of misconduct must be given the opportunity to defend themselves.

“We have to be clear that we have a process (for investigating misconduct claims) and that we’re going to follow due process,” Walsh said.

These investigations often take longer than anyone initially thought they would, and the media and public sometimes have “unreasonable expectations” for how long the process should take, he said.

McPheron noted that Ohio State has had several high-profile cases involving research integrity and research misconduct in the past several years. Those cases helped spark the idea of holding this conference, he said, in order to help develop solutions.

And these incidents prompted Ohio State to take concrete steps to address problems related to research integrity. The university took as its starting point the 2017 report “Fostering Integrity in Research” written by a committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

That committee was headed by Robert Nerem, who earned his PhD at Ohio State and is an emeritus professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Nerem outlined the report at the conference.

One key step Ohio State has taken is requiring that “anyone who touches research and creative expression” on campus – which includes about 16,000 faculty, staff and students – should complete Responsible Conduct of Research training, McPheron said.

Besides RCR training, the university is revising data policies to meet current needs and developing guidelines that clearly define authorship standards. Ohio State has made electronic lab notebook technology available to all faculty, staff and students to improve institutional management of data and has provided access to iThenticate software to screen documents for possible plagiarized or copied data.

In addition, at the request of faculty, the Center for Ethics and Human Values will host a series of campus conversations on research ethics.

McPheron noted that a key part of Ohio State’s efforts is ensuring that it has the right people leading the effort to protect research integrity. Jennifer Yucel, who heads the university’s research compliance office, and Susan Garfinkel, who recently joined Ohio State from the federal Office of Research Integrity, are “acknowledged national leaders in the this area,” he said.

McPheron said Ohio State continues to look for ways to improve.

“We don’t have things all figured out. But it is our job to figure it out,” he said.

“We have to be willing to talk about this issue and create a culture (of research integrity). This is a continued conversation that’s never going to be done. What we need to do is commit collectively to solving this problem.”

A video of the conference can be viewed here.