Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Friday, August 26, 2011

Should you blow the whistle?

What to do when you suspect your adviser or research supervisor of ethical misconduct.

By Cassandra Willyard

After graduating with a master’s in counseling, “Jackie Frank” (not her real name) decided to get some research experience before applying to a PhD program. She took a position at a small medical center where a researcher had a grant to study post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse. As part of the job, Frank interviewed study volunteers to assess the severity of their condition — and that’s when she noticed something fishy was going on.
“Our supervisor framed leading questions and expected you to do that as well,” Frank says. The researchers, she believes, were trying to manipulate the study results “to make a bolder, statistically significant statement.”
Frank later noticed that some of data had been changed. “At that point, I knew we didn’t have the same ethical values,” she says.
Frank debated whether to “suck it up,” but ultimately decided to leave before her funding ran out. In her exit interview, she brought up her concerns and handed in a formal letter detailing her observations. Not long after, she heard that the lead researcher was under investigation for possible misconduct.
Nearly every graduate student faces ethical uncertainties, says Melissa Anderson, PhD, a professor of higher education at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis who studies research integrity. But these quandaries become even more complicated when you suspect that your superior is involved in ethical misconduct.
“Graduate students, like all other researchers, are working at the frontier of knowledge,” she says. “And with every new thing, there’s the potential for new ethical complications.” The line between “cleaning up” and “cherry picking” data can be fuzzy, for example. And students may not be privy to all the nuances of a study’s protocol.
Even if ethical misconduct is clear, whistle-blowing may not always be the best option for you, says Michael Zigmond, PhD, a neurology professor at the University of Pittsburgh and associate director of an ethics workshop for graduate students. If you’re a fourth-year student and your adviser adds the head of the department to your paper even though he didn’t do any work, bringing it to the authorities’ attention may not be worth the potential damage to your career. On the other hand, if you’re working for a professor in another department and you witness sketchy research practices, quitting quietly and sharing your concerns in an exit interview — as Frank did — might be a good way to go.
Here’s some tried-and-true advice on how to navigate these and other ethical quagmires:
Review the evidence. Avoid jumping to conclusions, Anderson says. You may not know the whole story. Reflect on your communications with the person you suspect of wrongdoing. What led you to suspect something isn’t quite right? Is there evidence to support what your gut is telling you?
If you don’t know what constitutes misconduct, consult your university’s guidelines or the U.S. Office of Research Integrity’s handbook on responsible conduct of research. Every university that receives federal research funding is obligated to adopt the federal definition of scientific misconduct — fabrication, falsification or plagiarism — and some institutions may have even stricter definitions.
Then write notes about any ethical violations you suspect, suggests Anderson. Be sure to jot down the details of every conversation: What was said, who was present, where it occurred, and the date and time. Save your emails, both the ones you send and the ones you receive. Keeping track of what you see can help you form a conclusion and provides invaluable documentation if you decide to report the situation. “Good recordkeeping throughout a research collaboration is important in any case,” she says. “But it becomes really important when something bad is going on.”
The rest of the story is here.