The Role of Psychological Science in Studying Research Misconduct
Thirty-five years ago, a congressional committee led by a young US representative by the name of Albert Gore, Jr., began investigating a growing number of cases involving misconduct in federally funded research. Over time, the exposure of these cases led to the creation of the Office of Research Integrity (ORI), a unit of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Now, ORI is not only proactively developing programs to teach responsible research conduct but also exploring the role behavioral science can play in understanding the root causes of fabrications, falsifications, and plagiarism in reporting the results of federally backed public health research.
The Observer recently talked with ORI scientist–investigator Ann A. Hohmann about ORI’s work and the role that psychological scientists can play in helping prevent scientific misconduct.
The statements and opinions expressed in the following interview are Hohmann’s and are not the official positions of ORI or HHS.
Observer (OBS): What is the Office of Research Integrity’s mission?
Ann A. Hohmann (AH): ORI’s mission is to protect the health and safety of the public, promote the integrity of Public-Health-Service-supported (PHS) research, and conserve public funds by ensuring the integrity of all PHS-supported work. ORI:
oversees and directs PHS research-integrity activities on behalf of the DHHS Secretary, including the oversight of research misconduct inquiries and investigations, education and training in the responsible conduct of research, activities designed to promote research integrity and prevent misconduct, and research and evaluation programs;
makes findings of research misconduct and proposes administrative actions in connection with research conducted or supported by the PHS; and
reviews institutional policies to ensure compliance with misconduct regulations.
OBS: How many reports of misconduct do you receive per year? How many do you investigate during that time?
AH: ORI receives approximately 30 to 40 investigation reports per year. In the last few years, the number of allegations we have received has increased. This is in part due, I think, to the greater visibility given to the possibility of misconduct in research through various websites such as PubPeer and Retraction Watch. In addition, there are scientists who regularly report to us when they find figures in the literature that look to them like they may have been falsified.
We take every allegation seriously. If it is not within our jurisdiction, we refer the allegation, if possible, to other federal agencies who are listed as the source of grant funds (e.g., the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy).
ORI does not conduct the investigations. The Division of Investigative Oversight has oversight authority over the investigational processes conducted by institutions that have an assurance with us. Resources on that authority can be found here and at here.
Every institution (domestic or foreign) that accepts PHS funding must have an assurance with us.
These institutions conduct the assessment, inquiry, and investigation, and we provide them technical assistance and perform oversight review of the reports they give us. In that function, we can return the report and ask for further investigation and/or for additional information.
Our closed cases, with findings of research misconduct, are published in the Federal Register and on our website. Names are removed when the period of administrative action (usually supervision or debarment) is completed. If ORI does not find research misconduct, we never make any part of the case information public.
OBS: What are the biggest challenges in your investigative work?
AH: With my background in social science, the biggest challenge I have had is to learn enough immunology, molecular biology, or whatever basic biological science is the focus of the investigation (plus the associated methods) to understand not only what is wrong and why, but also how significant the misconduct is. But my colleagues at ORI have a variety of backgrounds representing a broad cross-section of science and medicine, and they are spectacularly helpful and supportive in sharing their expertise.
Since coming here, I have volunteered to learn various programs — including EnCase, a program for searching computer hard drives for evidence of misconduct, and iThenticate, a program for examining allegations of plagiarism — to help in reviewing case evidence. Because of my background, I am also the expert in the office who routinely reviews cases with statistical data.
The most difficult part of this job for everyone who comes to work at ORI as an investigator is to face the reality that there are scientists who deceive their colleagues and supporters. But we know that these people are outliers, and it is our job to do what we can to uphold the integrity of the research enterprise by making sure these cases are properly handled and by ensuring that we are doing what we can to prevent research misconduct in future cases. Our investigative staff is so committed to our mission that we even have a part-time investigator in his 80s who has refused to fully retire until his last two cases (both very large) are closed. The investigators at ORI are very dedicated.
OBS: Are there particular disciplines within science that seem to generate more investigations than others? How does psychological science fare?
AH: Most of the current allegations of research misconduct that ORI receives involve figures in published research that is online and can be scrutinized by fellow scientists. That includes basic biological research such as molecular biology, microbiology, genetics, and biochemistry. Without open access to original data, it is very difficult for peers to detect research misconduct in any of the social or behavioral sciences, so very few of the allegations we receive involve the social or behavioral sciences. At this point, we have to rely on people who are working with the data (and see problems) to report allegations to us. That does happen occasionally.
Extensive examples of the types of allegations we get can be found on PubPeer. Of course, PubPeer has many allegations that are outside our jurisdiction; ORI has jurisdiction only in cases where there is PHS funding, which includes NIH research.
OBS: What role do you believe psychological science can play in helping ORI?
AH: From the psychological perspective, recent research conducted by Dan Ariely, Nina Mazar, On Amir, Francesca Gino, Adam Grant, and others has shown that a psychological perspective to understanding research misconduct is critical.
There are so many angles that could be pursued by psychologists to understand and prevent misconduct. Research focusing on issues of choice, persuasion, cognition, identity and self-concept, social and cultural influences, and/or motivation all could be useful in understanding and preventing misconduct in science. But we need psychological scientists to do this research in settings where research misconduct that ORI oversees occurs: labs that receive PHS funding — most of which comes from NIH. So a good starting point to help the ORI would be for members of APS to design research studies that take place in NIH-funded labs.
OBS: What would you say would be the biggest benefit(s) for a psychological scientist to engage in this type of research-integrity research? And what are the risks?
AH: Before coming to ORI, I worked at NIH as a program officer for a program supporting community-based research. I learned from our investigators that, given the reward structure and tenure system of mainstream universities, it is a risk to take on research in the community. It can take a long time to get the cooperation of organizations and potential research subjects, and it requires much more than just a great idea and a clever design to make it happen. So it is challenging, with community-based studies, to quickly produce the publications that tenure committees want to see. In addition, these studies frequently require collaboration with researchers and experts outside your own field. For some departments, that also might pose a problem.
Recently, ORI has committed funding for research in this area. We have started out small with Phase I and Phase II research grants and are hoping to attract graduate students and postdocs. As the research program attracts creative researchers, we hope to be able to expand the program to fund larger projects. We need APS members to design creative research relating to research misconduct that takes place in government-funded labs so that the entire research community can get a handle on what is driving research misconduct and what ways exist to prevent it from occurring.