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Good practices

Falsification of sources in research projects

DANIEL BUENOFunding agencies and research institutions are beginning to worry about a still rarely discussed kind of scientific misconduct: the copying or fabrication of data in requests for scholarships and research grants. According to the National Science Foundation, the number of cases of plagiarism and fraud found in research grant proposals sent to agencies in the United States has tripled in the last decade. In an article published in the electronic journal The Chronicle of Higher Education, Karen Markin, Director of the Research and Development Department of the University of Rhode Island, says that these scams are not practiced only by students, but also by experienced researchers. In the case of plagiarism, Markin mentions that there is software capable of identifying copied passages and lists some precautions that the researcher should always take: do not forget to use quotes; know how to paraphrase correctly, i.e., rewrite a concept with other words, not just replace one word with another; carefully review the final text and obtain special training on good practices and research ethics.

When data is fabricated, it might be discovered immediately. In November, the US Office of Research Integrity (ORI)—the US agency responsible for the development of regulatory policies and monitoring of cases of misconduct in scientific research— announced the result of a two-year investigation of a series of falsifications in articles and research reports from an experienced professor at the University of Kentucky. The biomedical researcher Eric Smart, specialized in cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, was accused of falsifying data in research over the last 10 years.

In an official statement, the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said that Smart has published experimental data that never existed and fabricated 45 pictures in five grant applications, three research reports and a dozen papers, some with more than 100 citations. According to a report published on the website of the magazine The Scientist, many of the falsified images were of western blots, a method used in molecular biology to identify proteins. Experts consulted by the magazine said Smart’s articles were highly cited and it is difficult to assess the impacts of the case.

Smart received $8 million in funding from federal agencies and entities. At the start of the investigations, in May 2011, the biomedical researcher left the university and began teaching chemistry at a local school., Smart will be prohibited from competing for any federal grant  for the next seven years, a period that surpasses the traditional three or five years of punishment.