Daniel BuenoJames DuBois, psychologist and professor at the School of Medicine of the University of Washington, has had a unique experience in promoting research integrity: in the last three years, he has offered a rehabilitation program to researchers—39 from 24 different U.S. institutions—who had been punished for misconduct. The training was established using funds from the National Institutes of Health, the leading medical research agency in the United States. Several times a year, the program welcomes small groups of researchers whose funding had been suspended because they had committed fraud, plagiarism or fabrication of data in scientific studies.
In an article published in the journal Nature, DuBois reported his experience with the program and pointed out what he considers to be “myths” regarding scientific misconduct. The first myth is the idea that only “bad apples” get into trouble. Program participants, notes DuBois, include talented researchers whose home institutions find it worthwhile to invest in their rehabilitation. “We do not want to minimize the seriousness of participants’ violations, but they rarely resulted from a conscious intent to mislead or break rules,” DuBois wrote. He cites the example of one young researcher, who, promoted to a position where he headed a laboratory, did not review a postdoc’s data and analyses because he felt doing so would imply mistrust.
The second myth is the idea that having scientific skills is enough to be successful. Other abilities, such as leading teams, communicating with peers, attention to detail and creativity are just as necessary to prevent errors and missteps. Finally, DuBois questions the theory that researchers should try to produce as much as possible, not passing up any opportunity to submit projects or compete for funds. What happens is that becoming overextended is a cause of mistakes and lapses. “Principal investigators should take on no more projects than they can responsibly oversee,” he stated.
DuBois says that the program was initially criticized for spending money to help researchers who had engaged in misconduct. “The resources are well spent, since questionable research practices are much more widespread than we would like to believe,” he says. During the three days of training, researchers undergo a battery of assessments, discuss what they did wrong and write a professional development plan, which includes strategies such as holding regular team meetings, seeking further training and restructuring workloads. In the three months that follow, DuBois’ team conducts coaching telephone calls with participants in which they show how they are implementing their plans.