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Publish or perish : the rise of research misconduct

The research environment is in a state of hyper-competition. Researchers are jostling for grants and jobs. In an era of intense emphasis on measuring academic performance, there has been a proliferation of research misconduct and of questionable behaviours.

Intense competition and inadequate assessment can create a culture that implicitly encourages misconduct.What are the most common forms of research misconduct? How can a shift in the research culture create a game-changer?

Fabrication, Falsification and plagiarism of data

Referred to as the three “deadly sins” of research conduct, falsification, fabrication and plagiarism (FFP) are the primary concerns in avoiding research misconduct. What do these forms of misconduct entail, then?

Falsification is commonly known as the alteration or omission of research results (data) to support claims, hypotheses, other data, etc. Falsification may include the manipulation of research instruments, materials or processes. Manipulation of images or representations in a way that distorts the data or “reads too much between the lines” can also be considered falsification.

Fabrication is the construction and/or addition of data, observations or characterisations that never took place when collecting data or conducting experiments. Fabrication can occur when “completing” the rest of the experimental series, for example. Claims about results must be based on complete data sets (as is normally assumed), whereas claims based on incomplete or assumed results are a form of fabrication.

Plagiarism is perhaps the most common form of research misconduct. Researchers should be aware of citing all sources and taking careful notes. Using or presenting the work of others as one’s own is plagiarism, even if it is unintentional. When reviewing privileged information, for example when reviewing grants or journal article manuscripts for peer review, researchers should recognise that what they read cannot be used for their own purposes, as it cannot be cited until the work is published or publicly available.

How research culture can be a game changer

Doing research implies that scientists devote their passion and knowledge to using the funds that support their work in a careful and responsible way. So how does misconduct arise, besides from making a mistake?

Although important steps are being taken to reform the framework of competences or reshape evaluation systems, today’s research culture is still conducive to misconduct. The fierce competition, the limited number of tenured positions, the h-index, create a publish-or-perish environment. Often factors such as age, gender, peer pressure or management have been singled out as culprits. What is frequently heard was that research assistants may feel pressured to produce results that will attract the attention of senior researchers at their institution, hence giving them the opportunity to work on more prestigious projects. In turn, well-established researchers may be under pressure to secure major grants for their institution, which can be emotionally draining. Yet, recent studies suggest that the best defence against scientific misconduct is to look closely at the culture of the research environment. Is mutual criticism among colleagues encouraged? Is the mentoring programme for young research assistants strong? How are team members held accountable for the quality of their work? When the culture of the institution affirms its commitment to transparent and ethical research practices, the risk of misconduct is reduced, protecting not only the reputation of the institution but also its results.

In this respect, Luxembourg has four national bodies for research ethics and research integrity: The National Research Ethics Committee (CNER), National Data Protection Commission (CNPD), National Consultative Ethics Committee for Life Sciences and Health (CNE) and National Commission for Research Integrity – The Luxembourg Agency for Research Integrity (LARI). Similarly, research actors in Luxembourg have put in place numerous initiatives to promote a healthy environment conducive to integrity. All research institutions have developed guidelines and policies for good research practice, research integrity, and ethics in research. In most cases, Luxembourg follows the guidelines of the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity, which new draft by the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities (ALLEA) and reviewed by Science Europe is to be released in the second half of 2023, and of the League of European Research Universities.

Among the many actions, the University of Luxembourg has established several committees for handling questions in the field of research ethics. As for the Luxembourg Institute of Health, it provides training and workshops for early staged researchers to help them develop skills for their future career. At the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology, rising awareness on good research practices, ethics and research integrity is part of the onboarding programme for new employees. The Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research has formed a Research Ethics Committee (REC), which has the main objective of carrying out ethical reviews of project proposals and (if necessary) ongoing projects by LISER staff. Finally, the Luxembourg National Research Fund (FNR) plays a pioneering role in fostering research culture, particularly by introducing narrative CVs.

Read more about LARI’s research ethics FAQ

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