Graduate Research Misconduct

Pursuing an advanced degree offers students a unique hands-on opportunity to gain new knowledge and skills as you complete your course of study. A vital part of your degree work is engaging in research. Such studies will help shape you into a true specialist by teaching you valuable critical thinking and problem-solving skills – and putting you on a path where you can create and support innovative new ideas and applications. Leading such research projects as a graduate student will not only help you finish your thesis (and add all those fancy letters to the end of your name) at graduation – it offers you the opportunity to enter academia or industry with a truly competitive edge.

As part of your graduate orientation, your university likely provided some sort of guidelines regarding responsible research practices. Many universities, in fact, have some sort of office or department that governs research integrity across the institution that regularly publishes information on the subject – and may even check in with principal investigators and their collaborators about ongoing projects. You may have even had to take a course, seminar, or online training session on research ethics that covered issues like plagiarism, peer review, and publications. It is expected, as you work toward your higher degree, that you understand what is expected of you when it comes to research, as both your name and your school's name will be listed on any consequent publications.

As a researcher, your reputation – as well as that of your colleagues and collaborators – relies on you conducting responsible, ethical, and candid research. So, if you or someone you love is a graduate student who has been accused of academic research misconduct, it is important to take the matter seriously. A guilty finding on such a charge may not only interfere with the completion of your degree, but it may also have long-standing repercussions that will follow you for the rest of your career, regardless of whether you remain in academia.

What Is Research Misconduct?

Believe it or not, you can commit research misconduct without publishing a single piece of data. While most graduate students may believe such misconduct only occurs if you've placed your research in a conference abstract or research publication, that is not the case. Even proposing a research plan that cites falsified or fabricated data is a problem.

Most universities follow a research misconduct standard known as FFP, or Fabrication-Falsification-Plagiarism. If your conduct includes any of these three items while proposing, performing, reviewing, or reporting research results, you are likely in violation.

  • Fabrication is fabricating, or making up, data or results and then recording or reporting those results, either in a presentation or publication.
  • Falsification is manipulating your research materials, equipment, or processes in some manner – or changing our leaving out data points to the data not accurately represented.
  • Plagiarism should be well known to you from your undergraduate days. It is the use of other people's words, ideas, processes, or results without clear attribution or credit.

While the FFP standard covers most forms of research misconduct, your school may have additional policies or guidelines regarding research ethics or practices that you should know. In addition, if you have been given a grant by a government agency or non-profit organization, they also may have standards they expect you to follow as you conduct research studies with their funding.

It is important to understand that allegations of research misconduct are not limited to graduate students who work in the hard sciences like physics, chemistry, biology, or neuroscience. Students who engage in work that requires objective observations, as you may find in the so-called “soft” sciences like psychology and anthropology, are also held to high ethical and practical standards when it comes to research – and they are just as likely to be accused of a violation if concerns about data or publications arise. Even exaggerating or falsifying your credentials – say, to bolster a resume for an academic conference or publication – could be considered research misconduct. What you thought added that little something extra to your resume could result in the end of your research career.

You should note that any allegation of research misconduct will likely not only be investigated by your school but also the Office of Research Integrity (ORI), a federal agency under the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that oversees and directs research integrity activities, particularly for research studies that touch on health matters. The ORI develops important policies and regulations to help prevent research misconduct at universities and other research institutions across the country. It also directs efforts to detect and investigate research misconduct issues as well.

If you are accused of such a violation, it is important not to panic. While you are likely wondering what such an allegation may mean for your future, responding to it without the thoughtful counsel of an experienced attorney-advocate may lead to dire consequences – consequences that have the power to undermine all the time, money, and hard work you've invested in your academic career.

What Is Not Research Misconduct

It's important to understand that research misconduct does not include honest errors or simple differences of opinion.

While you likely engaged in some research endeavors as an undergraduate student, your real education comes once you enroll in your graduate program. One of the most valuable aspects of such research projects is the opportunity to learn by doing – and, as with anything else, it's easy to make errors as you learn new equipment, processes, data analysis pipelines, or other workflows. Mistakes can and do happen – and that is likely why you had some sort of mentor helping you as you started your new research work. That said, even the most seasoned research can make an error due to fatigue or distraction. But having the right processes and checks in place can identify such problems before they are published – and, if an error is identified that you have missed, it should be easily remedied without any allegations of misconduct.

When it comes to differences of opinion, most academic disciplines thrive on lively discussion and debate. If you happen to come up with research results that challenge the status quo, that is not misconduct. You may have made an important discovery that can further the field – or noticed an issue in the way data is collected or analyzed that needs to be addressed in the future so as to not taint future results. Either way, this is a vital part of the scientific process and is actually encouraged in most cases – provided your difference of opinion is presented thoughtfully and respectfully.

Sometimes, a university may consider research practices that seriously depart from those commonly accepted by leaders in the research community as research misconduct. For example, misusing confidential material, like manuscripts, grant proposals, or the proprietary materials that may come from academic-industry partnerships received in the peer review process, will be looked at with a critical eye. How your university views such actions is likely outlined in the school's research guidelines regarding ethical practices – it's important to read them carefully, so you understand what is expected of you.

It's also important to understand that some research practices may not be considered misconduct, per se – but are frowned upon or considered inappropriate by your school. These may include:

  • Maintaining inadequate research records, including raw data, especially for results that have been published or are relied on by others for future research work.
  • Not giving appropriate credit or recognition to people who made contributions to your research, including undergraduate research assistants or industry partners.
  • Conferring or requesting authorship based on a contribution that is not significantly related to the research that is being reported.
  • Blocking colleagues and peers from having access to unique research materials or data sets that support published papers.
  • Releasing preliminary research results to the press or general public without providing sufficient data to allow peers to judge the validity of your results.
  • Faculty members not adequately supervising students or other employees for which the faculty member is responsible for overseeing, during research projects.

Finally, many institutions, especially those universities world-renowned for their research work, may have policies in place that require you to report research misconduct if you suspect it is happening by a peer or colleague. If you don't report those concerns to your supervisor or to the university's office for research integrity or research ethics board, you may find yourself in violation of the school's policies and dealing with some kind of sanction. While this would not be research misconduct, per se, it is something that you should keep in mind – and yet another reason why it is so important to understand the details and nuances noted in your school's published research guidelines and practices.

Why Research Misconduct Happens

In a publish or perish academic world, some graduate students feel increasing pressure to get results that matter – and sometimes, they take a shortcut or two to get there. They may feel overwhelmed by graduate schools' demands and think they can make some small changes to their data “just this once.” They may lack the necessary support, thanks to overextended supervisors, to conduct their research in the right ways. Or, in other cases, graduate students may feel compelled by their peers or even their research supervisors to look the other way when misconduct occurs by others. You may even be falsely accused of research misconduct by a rival. None of these situations are above board – but, in such a competitive environment, these situations can and do happen.

Research misconduct, on the whole, is rather rare. Yet, because their reputations are on the line, universities will often be quick to claim misconduct when actually it's just a simple error or misunderstanding at play. That means that students may face allegations without thorough investigations or the opportunity to clearly explain the situation – and show supervisors and regulatory bodies there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for the results or reports they are seeing. But, as with any claim of misconduct, it is vital you present those explanations in the right way to make sure it is heard, whether you are appealing to your research supervisor or to a university disciplinary hearing.

An allegation of research misconduct may also occur because graduate students do not fully understand the rules, regulations, or policies that govern the school's research practices. Mistakes may happen because a graduate student is unfamiliar with the proper way to cite, quote, or use another's ideas or research in their own work. They may be unfamiliar with different types of complex equipment – and misinterpret the results. They may have run out of their research funding and are looking for ways to finish the project on the cheap. While schools will always say that issues of research conduct are always black and white, as you see just what graduate students have to deal with as they complete their research, especially for their required theses, the shades of gray become clearer. To be clear, there are many reasons why such an allegation may come to light – and many of them may have a completely reasonable explanation. That is why, if you are accused of a research misconduct violation, it is so important to understand your school's policies, procedures, and processes for remediating such claims. Since a guilty finding will all but end your research career, you need to find a way to present your defense – and come to a solution – that will not result in a guilty finding on your permanent academic record.

It is also important to note, if you do receive such notice of a research misconduct violation, your school may offer you a plea deal. With their research reputation on the line, the school will want to clear up any potential issues as quickly as possible. And the option to take a lesser sanction for a guilty plea may be tempting in such an embarrassing and frustrating situation. Yet, with your degree, as well as your future professional career on the line, making such a hasty decision is a mistake. That guilty finding will significantly change the course of your future – both while you remain a student and long after you have received your degree. You may what was supposed to be a quick and easy resolution will come back to haunt you as you apply for post-doctoral positions, try to publish your work in high-profile journals, seek competitive grant funding, or find a job in academia or industry. To understand your options – as well as the long-term consequences of any plea offer – it is important to take the time to speak with an attorney-advisor who has experience defending graduate students in research misconduct matters.

If You Have Been Accused

If you have been accused of research misconduct, it may be tempting to try to talk your way out of the allegation – to reach out to your professor or other colleagues to explain the situation. Unfortunately, doing so may actually hurt you in the long run. While you may want to tell your side of the story to anyone who will listen (and certainly anyone who will stand up for you), you may not yet be privy to all of the details in the allegation. When research misconduct allegations are made, schools are required by federal law to thoroughly investigate the matter. Such investigations are usually lengthy, detailed, and occur in multiple stages. That phone call to your direct supervisor can't stop what has been started. Your best bet, if you do receive notice that you have been accused of research misconduct, is to listen carefully, ask questions about how the investigation process will work and what procedures will be followed, and then retain representation. You do not want to provide a statement until you've consulted with an experienced attorney-advocate – a representative like attorney Joseph D. Lento of the Lento Law Firm, can help you consider every angle as you make that critical statement and then plan the next steps of your defense.

For example, an honest error exempts you from a misconduct charge. But how do you prove such, especially if you have already published your results? What kind of evidence do you need? How should it be presented to those that will determine your fate? These are the kinds of questions that an experienced representative can help you work out – helping you to mount a strong and reasonable defense.

Unfortunately, an allegation of research misconduct man not only be investigated and remediated by your school – in many cases, the ORI will also need to get involved, especially if any government funding is involved. Between the ORI and any university-specific policies, there are likely to be many nuances about how your case is handled from your first notice of an allegation. While one would hope those nuances would not matter much, it's often those little differences that can lead to big differences in a particular case's outcome – and may lead to career-ending penalties for individuals found guilty as charged.

Ideally, you should contact an attorney as soon as you learn of any research misconduct allegation. However, even if you already in the thick of a university or ORI investigation or even already at a hearing, it is never too late to retain representation. Though it may be tempting to try to handle the process on your own (or, worse, just pretend it's not happening at all), with so many complex procedural issues involved – and the potential for missteps if they are not managed appropriately – you want the advice of an experienced attorney. The Lento Law Firm has represented clients in both university and ORI settings – from the initial school investigation to the ORI investigation and recommendations. Our experience handling such cases uniquely prepares us to represent our clients on all fronts and ensure the most favorable outcome.

Attorney-advocate Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm have unparalleled experience with academic misconduct violations, including research misconduct charges at the graduate level. Having the right representative in your corner – one who has successfully defended countless students across the nation – can make all the difference to your case's outcome. To schedule a confidential consultation and learn more about how the Lento Law Firm can help you protect your degree and your future, call (888) 535-3686 or contact us online.

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