PSI Blog

Predatory Behavior that Can Circumvent the Practice of Normative Responsible Conduct of Research

Establishing a policy for implementing Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) is an important way to educate academic researchers about the standards with which we expect them to comply in their scholarly research endeavors. The convention and norms of the research community, as established by the NSF, NIH and other entities alike, typically entrust a Principal Investigator (PI) as the trustee and executor of a funded research project.

Aside from the off-chance that a funding agency becomes aware of unethical research procedures, inappropriate research expenditures and/or illegal research activities that constitute an evidential violation of the normative RCR practice, the PI is free to administer the research project and allocate the financial resources of the research grant with modifications. Post-award modifications could range from minor tweaks to major changes, as permitted by the funding agencies. Short of engaging in the aforementioned research misconduct, what could possibly constitute an untenable behavior – one that seemingly leaves the otherwise well-intentioned institutional research administrators powerless or ill-equipped to rectify? A hypothetical scenario, falling outside of the normative practice of RCR, is provided below.

Let’s assume that a grant proposal was submitted to a federal agency, seeking the opportunity to establish a “center of excellence” in a specific research discipline. The center grant application contained two components: (1) a proposal that details the organizational and administrative structure of the center, which includes the center’s mission (e.g., advancing innovative research), activities (e.g., program coordination and outreach), personnel (e.g., internal and external advisory committees), etc., and (2) two original research proposals that justify the creation and contributions of the center as a research entity.

The PI, selected by an existing Research Center on a university campus, was responsible for preparing the proposal that describes the center’s organizational and administrative structure. A team of researchers was invited by the Research Center and divided into two groups to generate two separate original research proposals. The presumed center-PI, who was in charge of submitting the complete set of application materials, entered his/her name as the PI for one of the original research proposals (written by a tenured faculty and a clinical researcher from the presumed center-PI’s home institution) and registered himself/herself as a co-investigator for the other original research proposal (written by an externally affiliated research institution). The center grant proposals successfully competed for funding.

Subsequent to receiving the center-grant funding, the center-PI began to systematically devalue the contributions of the two co-PI’s from the home institution; these two co-PI’s wrote the original research proposal but were stripped of the opportunity to serve as the project-PI, when the center PI self-designated as the project-PI at the time of proposal submission. The center-PI (and the self-designated project-PI) also declined to honor these two co-PIs’ time and efforts, as they appeared in the project budget. One of the co-investigators on the same project quickly dropped out of the project and later resigned from the university, after his/her role was greatly diminished by the center/project PI. This co-investigator was the individual who engineered the relations between the proposed center and other existing research, academic, and administrative units of the applicant institution for collaboration on sampling, data collection and outcome evaluation.

It should be noted that the center-PI provided annual reports to the funding agency as per usual, even though the center-PI diverted a large amount of grant funding for other uses. In light of this unfortunate circumstance, one of the co-PI’s (the tenured faculty), raised the concern associated with the lack of compensation for time and efforts (but not the diversion of research funds) with the relevant administrators at the university. This faculty co-PI received two types of responses. One entailed the answer “it is the PI’s prerogative to determine how the grant funding will be dispensed.” The other lambasted the faculty co-PI’s story as being defamatory. In sum, during the five-year period when the center grant was funded, the center-PI systematically stole the intellectual property right of the two co-PI’s, failed to properly compensate their time and efforts, and ultimately excluded them from accessing the research data at the conclusion of the project period.

The hypothetical scenario of “stealing authorship credit” provided above is nothing new, although combined with a twist related to the PI’s failure to compensate the authors’ time and efforts. If a situation like this one occurred at your institution, what would you have done or what could have been done? Should your institution intervene in this case on behalf of the two co-PI’s by demanding that the PI cease the predatory behavior and compensate the co-PI’s for their time and efforts accordingly? What advice would your institution provide for the PI and the co-PI’s regarding how to move forward with their research project? How could your institution prevent the PI from reducing or removing the co-PIs’ involvement with the project in the future? Should the PI receive some kind of reprimand or penalty? If so, what might the reprimand or penalty be and who should implement such remedies? Moreover, what policies or guidelines for monitoring grant administration, if any, should be developed to guard against this type of research misconduct?

Above and beyond the potential actions that the university officials could adopt to remedy this hypothetical scenario, should the funding agency also bear some of the responsibility in reviewing and evaluating the annual reports submitted by the PI more carefully? Would it be a good idea for the major grant program officer(s) from the funding agency to interview the key research personnel, in addition to the PI periodically, to validate the progress reports and compliance with responsible research conduct? This scenario presents many complex questions about the roles and responsibilities of various individuals and institutions. I welcome perspectives from inside and outside the graduate school on this important issue.

Carolyn Lin
Associate Dean of the Graduate School
University of Connecticut

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The Visiting Ethicist in the Graduate Classroom: Complement or Cop-out?

Two or three times a year I'm asked to make a presentation on research ethics for a graduate course at Indiana University Bloomington, my home institution. Although I always have mixed feelings about such invitations, I don't remember ever turning one down. On the one hand, I'm always happy to advance the cause of research integrity in any small way, to get to know a new faculty member, and to meet a few graduate students; but on the other hand, I can never tell how much of an impact I have and how my visit fits (or doesn’t) with the rest of the class. Even if I’ve talked to the professor at some length and read the syllabus, I often wonder whether all I’m really doing is giving the professor an excuse not to cover research ethics on her or his own.

I put a lot of effort into trying to help other people teach research ethics, or teach it better, and I have always said that every responsible teacher of research should teach the responsible conduct of research. I am convinced that in the ideal case, every graduate science class should include some discussion of the ethics of research when possible. Some courses would have relatively little ethics coverage; others, such as methods courses, usually have the potential to cover a broad scope of ethical issues. Budding scientists and researchers naturally model themselves on the best faculty members in their discipline that they encounter; it's unlikely that a visiting ethicist can have a similar impact.

That said guest lecturers can make a valuable contribution to a course. As a class visitor, I find that the best sessions are those in which examples from the discipline are brought up by the professor or students. If someone asks, "Is X ethical?” I use my status as an outsider to try to get them to articulate the usually unspoken assumptions that inform their discipline as we explore the underlying issues before coming up with an answer. Many people have good ethical instincts and can quickly come up with a good approach to dealing with an ethical problem, but it seems to me that fewer graduate students are well equipped to analyze such problems when the instinctive reaction is inadequate or absent. Witnessing and taking part in a process of wrestling to identify, delimit, and more-or-less solve one ethical problem is a better educational experience than being given the Right Answers to a dozen.

Even when I think such a session has gone well, I don’t typically know whether it’s the only discussion of ethics for the whole semester, which I would find regrettable – responsible conduct is too important to be given short shrift, and I do not want to be any professor’s excuse not to engage the issues on her or his own.

On the other hand, if a professor is covering issues of scholarly integrity, it probably reinforces those points when an expert on ethical issues that cross disciplines addresses the same problem in a broader context. And if I say something that seemingly or actually contradicts a point already made, there’s great fodder for discussion of the pluralism of values that exists even in science, not to mention what can be done (instead of just giving up) when two or more reasonable approaches or opinions seem to conflict.

Graduate schools can have an important role in supporting faculty in teaching research integrity on their own, and can also do some match-making that can be fruitful in many ways. Cross-disciplinary relationships aren’t often easy to establish, but they can be profitable to all involved. In closing, I hope that deans, researchers in ethics education, ethics instructors, and faculty will share their ideas on promoting a productive relationship between ethicists and faculty members in the disciplines with me and the Project on Scholarly Integrity.

Kenneth Pimple
Director of Teaching Research Ethics Programs
Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions
Indiana University
([email protected])

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Infusing Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) into the Curriculum

For graduate institutions to advance research and scholarly integrity across degree programs, they must show a strong commitment to developing a comprehensive approach for promoting responsible conduct of research (RCR). As an Affiliate of the Project for Scholarly Integrity, the University of West Florida (UWF) has worked strategically to assess our university’s needs in RCR education and has developed activities in a range of areas.

UWF is eager to share the results of its current work in one area in particular, the development of graduate curricula for the responsible conduct of research. We have approached this task with close attention to the particular mission of our university, a master’s intensive institution with approximately 2000 graduate students. The university offers twenty-six master’s degrees across 17 departments. Rather than treating RCR as a separate training experience, we have elected to infuse RCR into existing graduate research courses (and undergraduate research courses) for the purpose of enriching the existing curriculum. The decision is based on several points of rationale: (a) the already full curriculum requirements for students provides little room for additional coursework; (b) the establishment of new courses requires considerable time in obtaining approvals and course development activities; and (c) the infusion approach provides a natural integration of research integrity into the existing discipline via the existing research course within the discipline. This approach has been highly successful, engaging faculty in the process of addressing RCR in ways that are relevant to their discipline and resulting in courses that make RCR core to graduate learning.

This infusion process included the following activities:

  1. The establishment of a task force focused on RCR comprised of faculty from all departments within the institution;
  2. A survey of the faculty regarding the current status of integration of RCR and the needs of the various disciplines relative to the implementation and monitoring of RCR;
  3. The assessment of syllabi for existing research courses within all of the disciplines relative to the inclusion of RCR content;
  4. The use of rubrics and departmental discussions regarding the content that is infused into existing research and related courses and the degree to which it is integrated;
  5. Invitational visits from members of the institutional review board (IRB) to discuss RCR within department meetings;
  6. The establishment of a website of resources and announcements of events and webinars related to RCR monitored by the graduate school;
  7. Spreading RCR information through faculty meetings such as the Center for University Teaching, Learning, and Assessment monthly meetings and workshops; and
  8. The highlighting of disciplines relative to their specific infusion activities within the institution by the RCR task force.

We invite you to respond to a number of questions and issues that this initiative has raised for us at UWF:

  • Does your university have other suggestions for infusing RCR into the existing curriculum?
  • Do you use other approaches for promoting RCR within the curriculum, and do they vary by degree type or field? What have been their lessons or outcomes?
  • What are the relative advantages and disadvantages of embedding RCR training within existing courses, versus introducing RCR as a separate learning experience?

As the discussion continues we are eager to describe our experiences with various academic disciplines as well as the different RCR components. We are looking forward to your comments.

Richard Podemski, Graduate Dean and Carla Thompson, Associate Professor
University of West Florida, Pensacola, Florida


Peers and Colleagues as “Informal” Regulators of Research Misconduct?

In a recent opinion piece in Nature Magazine, (July 20, 2010), Gerald Koocher and Patricia Keith-Spiegel report on the results of a survey seeking to understand the behaviors and interventions of scientific researchers who suspect colleagues of scientific misconduct. Funded by a grant from the Office of Research Integrity (ORI), the confidential, online survey was fielded among investigators funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. 

The survey results indicated that there is a much higher rate of informal intervention into cases of suspect misconduct than expected: nearly two-thirds (63%) of survey respondents who had suspected research misconduct intervened in some way. In addition, many of those who took action reported satisfaction with the results of their interventions: 28% reported that they had been able to resolve the problem, and the chances of a positive or negative outcome were approximately even. Equal numbers of respondents indicated that their interventions led them to gain or lose respect. As the researchers point out, these results complicate earlier studies suggesting that researchers tend to avoid intervention to protect their careers. 

The Nature piece sheds light on a number of issues raised in other recent research on research misconduct. A central question, and one highlighted by the article’s authors, is whether there needs to be greater attention to “‘lesser’ forms of responsible research” that may be more easily observed by colleagues working together on a research project than willful cases of fabrication and falsification. Yet another question is whether formal compliance measures need to be supplemented by additional, socially-enforced norms and values within scientific and professional communities.  

The survey report offers an opportunity for reflection and discussion among members of institutions seeking to promote a strong culture of research integrity. The following questions might serve as a starting point for this discussion: 

  • What steps can institutions take to promote open and informal discussions among colleagues and graduate students about questionable research practices and suspected acts of misconduct?
  • How can institutions balance the need for compliance and formal investigation of research misconduct with a culture of openness and honest discussion?  
  • What models for “difficult discussions” about research integrity exist at your own institution? Where should these discussions take place—in the context of formal research training for graduate students, within the mentoring and advising relationship, programs supporting professional development, peer mentoring programs?

Julia Kent
Program Manager, Project for Scholarly Integrity
Council of Graduate Schools


Recognizing ''Gray Areas'' in Scholarly Integrity

An all-or-nothing view of scholarly integrity gives rise to some curious behavior. For example, last year, when I was planning a conference on international research collaborations, several people advised me to be sure that the word "integrity" did not appear in the title, lest researchers steer clear. (Since when do people avoid integrity?) Then, about a month ago, I was talking with a university physicist about research conduct, and our discussion turned to scientists who misbehave. His response was, "The problem is that they aren't punished enough. Throw 'em in jail and leave the rest of us alone!"  

I don't think that researchers see their own work as perfect and above reproach. To the contrary, I think that researchers are fully aware of problems in their own conduct. People are imperfect and their work is complicated. Things go wrong. People make mistakes and bend the rules. New technologies and novel situations sometimes call for seat-of-the-pants ethical decisions, which may or may not prove justifiable in retrospect. What David Goodstein called "minor hypocrises" and my colleagues and I have termed "normal misbehavior" is a routine part of scholarly research.  

Researchers know that complicated situations give rise to ambiguous ethical choices. Like the physicist, they are eager to dissociate themselves from those who engage in egregiously bad behavior, but I think they are also uncomfortable with the idea of integrity as an impossible standard of perfection. They are all too aware of their own lapses and uncertainties.  

The idea of scholarly integrity needs to be grounded in a sense that researchers seek to behave well in sometimes ambiguous circumstances. This view should lead to open consideration of gray areas and ethical complexity, which should draw researchers into the discussion, rather than promote avoidance. Discussions about scholarly integrity need to address practical research issues and problems as they arise, as well as ways to ground solutions in general principles of good research conduct.

Integrity is far more useful when it is treated as a focus point for dealing with ethical problems than as a standard of perfection.

Melissa Anderson, University of Minnesota


Supply and demand in RCR instruction

Instruction in the responsible conduct of research suffers from a basic imbalance between supply and demand. On one hand, 20 years' worth of attention to scholarly integrity has produced masses of books, cases, exercises, simulations, scenarios, videos, etc., that can be used in instructional settings. Resources on the web and computer-based training provide ready access to materials. Instructors have much to choose from in designing units on ethics, moral development, critical thinking, ethical decision-making, and so on. The supply is abundant.

What about demand? It's no secret that researchers tend to view instruction in the responsible conduct of research (RCR) as an annoyance. Few look forward to updating their own training for recertification purposes. Few volunteer to teach courses or units on ethical issues, and few include anything beyond cursory attention to RCR in the courses they teach. Few regularly build discussions of ethics into their lab meetings. Laurel Smith-Doerr's research has documented scientists' unwillingness to participate in RCR instruction, which they see, for the most part, as taking valuable time and attention away from their research.

The incentives have lined up in quite predictable ways to produce this imbalance. When institutions were confronted with federal mandates to assure that their researchers were prepared to conduct research with integrity, they naturally turned to people in bioethics, philosophy, and education and encouraged them to devise instructional approaches to RCR. These creative people responded to the challenge with gusto, building on their expertise in ethics and related areas. Meanwhile, the researchers were, for the most part, far less involved in the process. Their lack of expertise in teaching about ethical issues and their willingness to let others take over the instructional role ensured that they were minor contributors.

The situation plays out differently, depending on the institution's stage of RCR development. Some institutions have been virtually untouched by mandates for instruction on research integrity. In Australia, for example, graduate education is research-based, with virtually no formal, instructional component. I talked recently with an Australian scientist about RCR efforts at her institution. In short, there are none at present. I asked her how the students learn about proper behavior in science, and she shrugged and said, "By osmosis, I guess." She was not aware of any attention to the responsible conduct of research, apart from normal good practice.

In other institutions, RCR instruction has formally arrived, but it is treated essentially as a matter of compliance. Mandated training is handled as expeditiously as possible. As a microbiology department chair at a U.S. university told me a couple of weeks ago, scientists view integrity instruction as a waste of time and try to get out of it any way they can. One hears stories about scientists who assign one member of the lab the responsibility of completing the mandated, online training modules, recording all the correct answers along the way. These answers prove useful to the other lab members who then quickly complete the required modules, though sometimes the original person completes them on behalf of all the lab members. In one of my articles, I told about a doctoral student who was required to complete an online course in order to be certified to do research on human subjects. She completed the training, which should have taken several hours, in under a half hour, through judicious guessing on the assessment questions. As for the required online text? "Well," she said, "that looked like a lot of reading, so I skipped that."

There are institutions, far fewer in number, that have elaborate RCR programs. These universities – my own, the University of Minnesota, among them – tend to be places that have experienced the mixed blessing of a major ethical scandal. Here, circumstances have empowered administrators to demand that faculty and all others who have responsibility for funded research take regular RCR training. Here, finally, we come to a case where supply and demand must be somewhat more balanced. Well, yes, to some extent – but even here, the enthusiasm of RCR instructors (and I am one of them) cannot fully overcome the resistance of faculty who still see the whole endeavor as a waste of time.

My research over the past 20 years has been in the area of research integrity, misconduct and related issues. I have posed the above Emperor-has-no-clothes proposition to begin our discussion together. In subsequent entries, I plan to consider what we can do about this basic conundrum and others. I look forward to our connections in blogspace.

Melissa Anderson, University of Minnesota


The Use of Video Vignettes in RCR Training

/uploadedImages/PSI/Blog/University_of_Alabama_at_Birmingham.jpg One of the most innovative approaches to teaching ethical deliberation and the responsible conduct of research (RCR) is the use of video vignettes. If properly contextualized in a classroom or an online tutorial, videos can have unique “interactive” possibilities. Students and faculty can actively engage with questions and dilemmas commonly encountered in research settings or in the advising relationship. They can imagine different scenarios and the potential ramifications of different kinds of decisions, or they can picture themselves in the shoes of other students or faculty members who may be engaged in making bad choices or ethically questionable decisions.

Some sample video vignettes as well as their contextual materials are accessible at the following website of the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB):

The website first presents students with a situation that can easily lead to ethical missteps, and asks them to reflect about their own experiences. Students are then invited to watch a short video sequence in which characters confront, and make ethical decisions about, the situation and its consequences. Throughout the segment, students are asked to provide short observations about the characters in the video and to articulate their suggestions for how best to resolve their “real-world” dilemmas.

Video resources have prompted researchers and educators to consider the importance of interactive pedagogies and modes of delivery for teaching ethical deliberation and the responsible conduct of research. Some of the most interesting questions raises by such resources include:

• What is the effect of training resources that require student input? How are such materials different from those that simply provide students with information or guidelines about the responsible conduct of research?

• Is there special value in resources that “tell a story” about characters facing a difficult ethical situation in research or scholarship? Do these resources prompt student—and faculty—to respond differently to ethical issues than they do when they encounter information and materials that are not based on hypothetical or real-life cases?

• What are the “learning outcomes” of RCR modules involving interactive technology? How might educators describe the goals of such learning modules? How might their actual outcomes be assessed?

• Is there added value to using technology in the teaching of RCR and ethical deliberation?

While online and video resources are only one small part of a comprehensive RCR or scholarly integrity program in graduate education, there is a wide variety of such “interactive” materials available for direct implementation in RCR education or for adaptation to research ethics education at the graduate level. A number of the most recently developed approaches, including the approach used at UAB, were presented at an RCR Workshop at the Annual Meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools. The presentations of the RCR Workshop are summarized below by Jeffrey Engler, with links to some of the accompanying materials.

Please feel free to post a comment on any of these approaches or on other resources in RCR education.

Summary of RCR workshop held December 3, 2008 at CGS Annual Meeting

This workshop focused on the development of use of video vignettes and case studies as resources to educate graduate students about scholarly integrity and responsible conduct of research.

Dr. Elizabeth Holmes, faculty member in the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership at the US Naval Academy, demonstrated a video approach to ethics education, organized as interactive simulations to engage students in scenarios to identify how choices made during the simulation can lead to good and bad outcomes. The simulations lead students through a series of instructional stages, including moral awareness, moral judgment, moral intention, and moral action. These simulations are linked to values and strategic imperatives espoused by the US Naval Academy and build leadership skills and responsibilities among the midshipmen. The home page for the Stockdale Center is where the simulation “Last Call” is available for download.

Dr. Lee Williams, Vice President for Research at the University of Oklahoma, described research in the psychology of teaching ethical concepts. Faculty and graduate students in the Department of Psychology developed an ethical decision model based on research into the taxonomy of ethical behavior and the individual and situational influences to such behavior. Unlike traditional approaches, this research recognized that complex work and ethical problems involve professional, social and ethical consequences. The rationale of the pedagogic approach is that students need decision-making strategies to promote ethical behavior. To implement this goal, a two-day seminar with 10 modules has been developed to promote ethical decision making, with post-seminar evaluation of effectiveness. Faculty and student satisfaction with the content of this seminar has resulted in substantial acceptance and demand for expanding this approach.

Dr. Jeffrey Engler, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the UAB Graduate School, described strategies to engage faculty and students in a continuing discussion of scholarly integrity issues. Based on these small group discussions, two video vignettes (“Amanda’s Dilemma”; “Whistle Blower”) have been created for online web education ( These videos have been organized in the “Query – Video Presentation – Query” format developed by Dr. Sara Vollmer at UAB; each segment of the presentation provides an engaging initial question, followed by a short video segment, and then a second question to allow further deeper reflection. “Amanda’s Dilemma” has also been incorporated into a one-hour workshop, in which small groups of graduate students discuss the issues involved in and strategies for avoiding plagiarism; a brochure summarizing the content of the workshop can be downloaded at This workshop has been presented to more that 400 graduate and undergraduate students; post-workshop assessments show that these interactive sessions have been highly effective.

Dr. Paul Braunschweiger, co-founder of the Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (CITI), described video vignettes prepared at the University of Nebraska and the use of web-based materials to train students and faculty in areas of responsible conduct of research. Dr. Braunschweiger discussed the relative merits of web-based instruction, including ease of use, availability of materials 24/7, and high user satisfaction. CITI has invested substantial effort to measure the efficacy of their online instructional materials. CITI currently offers 8 web-based modules with more becoming available in the next year. Many of these modules incorporate video vignettes (such as those from the University of Nebraska) to stimulate engagement and other interactive materials to enrich the student training experience. The web site for the CITI program can be found at

Jeffrey Engler
University of Alabama at Birmingham