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Good Practices

Pitfalls of misconduct

Henrique CampeãIn an opinion piece published in the journal Nature, C.K. Gunsalus, director of the National Center for Professional & Research Ethics at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, USA, listed the pitfalls that students and researchers often fall into that can lead to poor decisions and cases of scientific misconduct—and urged academic leaders to establish better methods for keeping the situation under control.

Part of the problem is the bad habits often practiced by those in charge. One of the pitfalls, which Gunsalus called “group and authority pressure,” describes when people turn a blind eye to irregular practices by senior researchers—following instructions not in line with clinical protocol, for example—telling themselves that the researcher is experienced and knows what they are doing. Another is “temptation,” which is the desire to participate in attractive but improper research arrangements, such as accepting credit for an article without having contributed significantly to the research. Gunsalus mentions a real case in which a senior researcher added the name of a new graduate student to a completed manuscript simply for double-checking the data. The student was understandably flattered, but unaware that the lead author had only added their name in order to resubmit a paper that had previously been rejected for having just one credited author for such a complex study.

Other pitfalls include unethical behavior that is rationalized because it is related to secondary aspects of research, such as excluding a single unfavorable data set but not more, or manipulating images, for example, knowing that the act has no impact on the conclusions of the experiment. The list continues with practices linked to inexperience, such as when a researcher makes mistakes because they are too embarrassed to admit that they do not know how to do something; when they firmly believe that a result must be true because they worked so hard to achieve it; or when they are convinced that a negative result must have been caused by a mistake in the experiment.

The list is completed with two well-known practices: exaggerating research results, and dividing conclusions to generate multiple articles. According to Gunsalus, there are two strategies that university leaders can use to tackle these issues. One is to empirically assess the extent to which their research culture values ​​integrity. “The second is developing research ethics education that is relevant to and integrated with how trainees actually learn to do science,” she says.