Excerpt from ORI infographics on drivers for research misconduct.

Research Misconduct – Is the competitive academic environment to blame?

The Office of Research Integrity (ORI) of the US Department of Health and Human Services has an infographics highlighting five reasons why people are driven to academic dishonesty. The largest block in the infographics is dedicated to one of these reasons: “Competitive Pressures”. As someone in the ladder towards an academic research position, I feel this pressure and have seen many dance around the line of research dishonesty. This raises many questions regarding blame, and whether anything can be done to bring about change.

How big a driver are these Competitive Pressures?

Research dishonesty happens for many reasons, and I don’t have a definite quantitative answer to how much is driven solely by the competitive pressures of the academic environment. But the data from ORI can give us some clues. The graphic below shows the rank of those accused of research misconduct over a period of 10 years. The ladder towards a tenured academic position looks something like this:

Grad Student ⇒ Postdoc ⇒ Assistant Professor ⇒ Associate Professor ⇒ Professor.

Among these ranks, those who are not yet tenured (grad student through assistant professor) account for 81% of cases. While not conclusive, this is an indication that the pressures that come with the process of tenure are a large component of what drives people to research misconduct.

What exactly do these pressures look like?

Associate professors have a limited amount of time, typically 5-7 years, to prove themselves, at which point they go through the tenure process. The decision for tenure is supposed to be based on scholarship, service, and teaching. However, in practice the focus seems to be on the number of publications, quality of the journals, and ability to get funding through grants; an attitude often expressed as “publish or perish”. This enormous pressure to produce extraordinary results quickly is then passed “down the ladder” to grad students.

An ORI video case study showcases this competitive pressure, and the problems associated with it, perfectly. In the case study, a graduate student has conflicting experimental results. However, due to the deadline for the grant proposal, there is no time to re-do any of the experiments. She is told to use the results from one of her experiments that shows the trend they were hoping for. The video then asks several pertinent questions such as:

  • What pressure is the Graduate student facing right now?
  • How might those pressures change how she conducts her research?
  • When you have contradictory results, how do you choose what, or how much of it, to present? 
  • What issues could arise if only the single positive result is reported?
Screenshot of ORI video case study.

How competitiveness can be bad.

A certain level of competitiveness is healthy and necessary in research. But the type of pressures we see in the ORI video and that I have experienced and seen others around me experience, are not conducive to a healthy work environment. It inhibits the type of careful and methodical approach demanded by the scientific method, it puts psychological stress on the faculty and students, and it makes it enticing to cheat.

Is the university to blame?

Obviously the individuals performing the research misconduct carry a large amount of the blame and should be appropriately punished. However, the university itself, in maintaining a system that makes cheating enticing and beneficial, is partly to blame. This is recognized at the undergraduate level, where for example at Virginia Tech professors and TAs are told they have the responsibility to make it as difficult as possible for students to cheat. For instance, professors should not give the same exam two years in a row.

One could argue that it is up to the students not to cheat and the university should simply punish the students who do cheat. How can the university be to blame for students cheating? Again, I believe that creating an environment where it is beneficial and easy to cheat would make the university partly at fault. After all you are tempting people with a great reward with little or no consequence and no clear reason as to why they shouldn’t take it. The university recognizes this and tries to create an environment conducive to ethical conduct by actively promoting academic honesty, actively educating students about ethical behavior, actively engaging students through signing the honor code, and yes, creating and enforcing clear punishments.

If the university can recognize this at the undergraduate education level why doesn’t it apply the same reasoning at the tenure-track research level?

What can be done?

The university should actively promote an environment conducive to ethical research and a healthy working environment. This can be done by a simultaneous combination of several different approaches as is done in the case of undergraduate education described above. Some of these approaches could include:

  • Modification of the tenure evaluation to focus less on single hard metrics and more on a hollistic evaluation of the candidate’s abilities.
  • Active training for professors and grad students on ethical research (and while we are at it, teaching).
  • Actively promoting (and ensuring) work-life balance and wellness among faculty and students.
  • Having the committee, department, and even university play a more formal role in grad student’s development and progress, rather than working under a single individual.

I want to expand significantly on these ideas, but will leave that for a followup blog post.

Conclusion

One of the biggest drivers of research misconduct is the unnecessary pressures placed on tenure-track faculty, and the university is partly at fault for failing to create an environment and culture conducive to ethical research.

19 thoughts on “Research Misconduct – Is the competitive academic environment to blame?”

  1. Your blog post is awesome! “The university should actively promote an environment conducive to ethical research and a healthy working environment.” <— This is everything. I think this goes back to the idea of academic hazing. Often professors act like this pressure and culture of constant work was something they had to go through and so it is something we have to go through, too. It undermines the purpose of higher education and ethical research (as you nicely pointed out) through competitiveness (and thus the pressure to lie/cheat/falsify), but I think it also undermines quality research because it strips researches and scholars of the time to really consider their research, resources, sources, ethics, and what parameters will create the best outcomes.

    1. Yes! The idea of academic hazing is definitely a part of it that I left out. And perhaps some people feel it is even necessary to become a good professor? Also good point on not being able to focus on quality (instead focus on quantity and be driven to cheat).

  2. I very liked your post. The chart and discussion about the number of research misconduct in different academic level are interesting. Something I noticed while reading some online resources, was the post titled “SHOULD I PUBLISH NEGATIVE RESULTS OR DOES THIS RUIN MY CAREER IN SCIENCE?” published by Hendrix*. I agree that universities are to be blamed for the research misconduct cases, but as it is stated in the above-mentioned webpage, I mostly blame the scientific society. Journals with a high impact factor might need to take a different approach towards publishing negative results. What should be wrong with the publishing of the negative and unbiased results? Since the main reasons for reported cases on the ORI website were data falsification, data fabrication, and image manipulation; I think the pressure is for publishing “pretty” data, something that makes more sense, something that the researchers could be proud of finding in their research. This is what I heard a lot and believe “not to get the expected results is a result itself”, but the question is how much scientific society is leaned toward accepting this?

    * https://smartsciencecareer.com/negative-results/

    1. Great point! Journals do not value “unexpected results”. They also do not value studies replicating other’s experiments. These are two of the defining features of science! I had not thought of this but I agree now, the publications themselves carry part of the blame by encouraging only one aspect of good science (ground breaking results) while not valuing all the others at all.

  3. The chart you showed in this discussion is informative. I like it. I think your suggestions for this are useful, i.e. “Active training for professors and grad students on ethical research”. This could reduce misconducting research. I totally agree this this misconduct is unnecessary!

  4. Your post is very well done! My personal favorite is the chart, that shows the misconducts along the different stages at a university. It was intersting to see that the most misconducts are made by the postdoctoral fellows and not by the graduate student, who are just starting their research career and even without knowlingly they might fall into a violation of research principals. The suggestions at the end are just fenomenal, and I cannot aggree more.

    1. The stats for the postdocs took me aback too. I think the market for professorship positions is very competitive and probably also plagued by the ‘publish or perish’ attitude.

  5. Excellent summary!

    I feel that many grad students have felt pressure to present and/or publish things that the full results may not support. It’s tough to draw a line between honest interpretation of messy data and dishonest presentation of results, and it can be even tougher to contradict an advisor who is pushing you to publish questionable findings.

    1. I agree, it’s tough to contradict your advisor. I personally don’t like the strict hierarchy where you end up working completely under a single individual. I think the committee should be a bigger part of a grad student’s education and research.

  6. I strongly agree with your point that “This enormous pressure to produce extraordinary results quickly is then passed “down the ladder” to grad students.” The high pressure has to be addressed to prevent research misconducts. I also think that improve replicability of studies in peer-reviewed journal can be another good strategy.

  7. Hi,
    I liked your perspective very much! There is no doubt that faculty members are subjected to a pressure of getting funding for the university and publish more papers especially to get a tenure. However, if there exists a correlation between the quality of research and the pressure they are going through, then it is time to take a step back and re-evaluate the entire scenario with a third person’s perspective. Competition is innate in human beings and it is normal to compete with fellow faculty members for a grant, however, there is a difference in competition for survival and competition in the present case. Most people compete as if it were the end of the world and so by hook or by crook, they need to get the work done and that is not a good sign of a healthy competitive place. There has to be a constant supervision of quality of research especially in the “danger zones” if I may call them based on the figure: post-doctoral candidates and assistant professors as they are the people who are extremely persuasive to get more research articles published to secure a tenure.

    1. Hmmm I am not sure if there is a correlation between quality and pressure is really there. From my observations it can actually hinder good, in-depth, research. Instead it promotes quantity over quality and going for multiple “low hanging fruits” rather than really focusing on difficult problems.

      1. I most definitely feel that “publish or perish” pressure and I’m only a first year student, but one of the professor that I am close with mentioned that at the beginning the “low hanging fruits” is there to help you get a feel for the publishing process. While they are not your best or most in-depth question-focused studies, it is a way for others to know that you know the process and can publish.

        1. Great point! It can definitely be a useful tool. But it should be a tool you as an academic decide to use, not a practice you are pressured into to achieve some arbitrary goals.

  8. The points you mentioned were strongly valid. However, I think the situation is more complicated and there are a couple of issues that it was better if you could have addressed in your post.
    First, for each of postdoc and tenure-track positions, the number of applicants are usually far more than the number of availabilities. Considering this issue, how can the universities choose among the people without using strict and objective criteria?
    Second, even if we neglect the high applicant to open position ratio, and considering that the people are usually hired to do high quality research, what other objective criteria rather than the number and quality of publications or bringing grants can be used to distinguish between people?

    1. There definitely has to be way of evaluating people, but I don’t think the number of papers alone is not a good metric. It can lead to some unproductive practices like focusing on many simple problems rather than focusing on a single tougher one. There have to be ways to look at the totality of the individual and evaluate their ability to do research and the quality of that research. To me this is a similar situation to the SAT or GRE where the evaluation metric leads people to studying test-taking techniques, which seem counterproductive. Of course having many publications is a good and impressive thing and should only help you in getting the job, but it should not be the only path to proving yourself and your skills. There are many reasons that two individuals could have different number of publications that have nothing to do with their respective ability to do quality research.

  9. You conclude your post by questioning what institutions of higher learning can do to encourage research integrity among students, staff, and faculty. Your examples include, but are not limited to, the following – “Active training for professors and grad students on ethical research (and while we are at it, teaching).” However, can we conclude, with or without statistical significance, that cases of research misconduct with administrative actions imposed against them by the United States Department of Health and Human Services Office of Research Integrity are the result of research ethics and compliance training, or lack thereof? Did any or all of these graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, project scientists, research professors, and professors engage in research misconduct because they were not sufficiently trained to know that fabricating and/or falsifying research is wrong? To be clear, I am not arguing that institutions should not require research ethics and compliance training, but rather I am questioning if deeper character-related flaws are at issue.

    1. Please note that the above reply is from TSHUBA. For whatever reason, it was posted as “Anonymous” even though I was logged in as tshuba.

    2. Would there be less research misconduct if the University provided training?. If the answer is yes then I think the university has a responsibility to do so. People behave very different depending on the environment they are in. The training would be part of a larger effort to foster an environment where these practices are clearly unacceptable, and everyone plays a role in ensuring ethical research in their institution.

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