On Ethical Pursuit in Research

To write a case study blog on ethics, I chose a case (Case Summary: Sudbo, Jon ) of Scientific Misconduct, in particular falsifying and fabrication of research data . I find this case intriguing, for the most part, because: 1) I work as a graduate research assistant currently immersed in the process of assisting two professors writing a NIH research grant application and 2) Having had the experience of executing a household survey as a PhD student and collecting data on my dissertation research,  I understand the importance of reliable and authentic data in answering my research questions and the far-reaching consequences of the findings.

In this case, a faculty member (former doctoral student and researcher) of one of the leading Universities of Europe, was accused of Scientific misconduct.  The allegations against him and the findings from an investigation conducted by Investigation Commission appointed by Norwegian Radium Hospital (NRH) and the University of Oslo was of:

  • Fabricating Data that demonstrated feasibility of research in a grant application submitted to National Cancer Institute (NCI) and National Institutes of Health (NIH)
    (the accused reported several events intended to demonstrate his experience in the research field that the Investigation Commission stated “appear as pure fiction.”)
  • Falsifying in the first year progress report of the grant (“falsified the number of patients that had been screened for admission to the study”)

The findings of the investigations (respondent’s own admission and additional analysis and information obtained by the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) during its oversight review) provide evidence in favor of the misconduct. However, the interesting aspect is the accused admitted of falsifying and/or fabricating data in three publications, whereas the investigating committee found evidence of at least twelve other publications that called for retraction because those publications could not be considered valid. Even though those publications were not funded by Public Health Service (PHS), the validity of those publications were questionable due to the fact that they address the same general research area of the submitted and funded grant.  As disciplinary actions, the accused researcher “voluntarily “agreed to permanently exclude himself from — 1) any contracting or subcontracting with any agency of the US Government and from eligibility or involvement in non-procurement programs of the US Government and 2) serving in any advisory capacity to PHS. The accused agreed on making petition to reverse or reduce the scope of the permanent voluntary exclusion or other administrative actions that were subject of the agreement (details of the actions are available here) .

Objective of research work in any discipline is to innovate, improve and develop knowledge to answer questions specific to that discipline and eventually to communicate the knowledge through publications. The importance of research work is fundamental in the progression of authentic knowledge in any field and ensuring human well-being using the insights  gained from the research findings. Ethical pursuit is one of the indispensable elements of any research endeavors or academic work; fabrication of data whereas not only tarnishes the existing trust on researcher and their dedications towards the work, also unequivocally puts the lives at risk and resources go to waste. Therefore, we, as researchers, carry a tremendous responsibility of searching and answering of research questions while ensuring the reliability of the data, analysis to provide authentic and well-grounded output.

Search for Statements

Mission statement of an educational institution is a way of communicating its core values and beliefs as well as strategies to shape and direct the action of the individual in that environment to achieve learning goals. Therefore, while reading the mission statement of the universities, I started to look for the clarity and importance of their mission. To be precise, I looked for finding the answers of the following questions (not in any particular order):

  • What do they want to achieve? (Goal)
  • How do they want to achieve it? (Operation/ Function)
  • Why is it important? (Focus on the future)

I searched for universities by their rankings among the universities of the world and settled on two US universities. I do not dare to claim (or even assume) of any relationship between the rankings of the universities and the specific focuses according to their mission statement.  Even there might exist some sorts of connection, it is hardly possible to get much insight just by studying the mission statements of two universities.  Still, eccentric brain of a researcher never stops looking for (sometimes pointless) cues or patterns .

I chose Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Texas A&M University for the blog post. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is a privately endowed research university in  Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States, dedicated to advancing knowledge and educating students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century. The second university is Texas A&M University. Texas A&M University is a public research university in College Station, Texas, United States with 128 Undergraduate Degree Programs and 300 Graduate Degree Programs. According to QS Top Universities, MIT is ranked as number one and Texas A&M University is ranked as 203rd among the worlds universities. Without questioning the validity of the ranking,  I proceed to read the mission statements.

(Disclaimer: There is neither interesting, nor any radical claim at the end of the blog! Reading only a few mission statements of universities, whose rankings are wide apart, is in no way near to claim, prove or disprove any idea.)

Going back to my earlier questions – unsurprisingly, both of the mission statements stated the answers (each individually tailored to their academic and research focus) for the questions I was searching for. Being research universities, the importance of knowledge and creativity and their dedication to ensure nurturing intellectual environment to navigate through the fast-changing 21st century world is clearly expressed in both statement. What I like about MIT’s mission statement is that it creates a connection of every member of their community with the larger world. There is a sense of progression from individual to many and national to global in their mission statement. Being an international student at the US, one thing from the mission statement of Texas A&M Universities spoke to me is its specific focus on diversity. By distinctively stating – “It welcomes and seeks to serve persons of all racial, ethnic and geographic groups as it addresses the needs of an increasingly diverse population and a global economy”, their mission statement underlines the tremendous importance of diversity in an academic setting.

My objective of reading into these mission statements was not to invoke any unkind comparison between them, rather to look for the aspects that spoke to me the most. However, according to their mission statements, from a broader perspective, there are more similarities than difference in the goals that both the universities are trying to accomplish . As a matter of fact, the mission statements of almost all the educational institution are very similar (I also read several other mission statements including the mission statement of Duke University) in ways of incorporating words & ideas related to creativity, collaboration, openness, diversity, intellectual growth etc. How much of these actually matters or reflected when it comes to action? I guess my point is that are these just buzzwords or a meaningful framework to practice and uphold the core values of these institutions?