When charges surfaced last summer that a prominent psychology researcher had fabricated data, shocked scientists had lots of questions: What exactly happened and when? And--if the allegations were true--why would a well-respected researcher jeopardize her career in such a way?

The research, reported by Karen M. Ruggiero, PhD, at Harvard University, was called into question when others tried to replicate it. Following the allegations, she resigned her assistant professor position at the University of Texas at Austin and submitted retractions to two journals--one of them APA's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

While Ruggiero's retractions did not indicate she had fabricated data, the fact that the case involved such prominent institutions and has been enshrouded in mystery (a Harvard spokesperson had "no comment" on the case and Ruggiero did not return calls from the Monitor) has escalated concerns about accusations of fraud--not to mention the resulting fallout for institutions, researchers and students. Along with the concerns has come increased attention to fraud prevention.

Such cases are unusual, however. A search of the Medline database reveals fewer than 300 research retractions since 1966, and not all those cases involved misconduct, says Michael Domjan, PhD, chair of the Texas psychology department, from which Ruggiero resigned.

Often there is a perception of more data fraud than there actually is, agrees University of Rochester's Harry Reis, PhD, chair of APA's Board of Scientific Affairs. "And every time one of these cases comes to light, it does the profession a lot of damage," he says. "One of the reasons we have to police ourselves more effectively is to avoid these sorts of damaging situations."

Fortunately, there are measures the research community can take to prevent misconduct, says Chris Pascal, director of the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"People I talk to think that if you don't do research ethically, you are just a bad egg and it can't be prevented, but that is just a hypothesis," says Pascal. "My hypothesis is that there are types of misconduct that can be prevented by better education and better monitoring in the lab."

What's more, Pascal believes, it is the shared responsibility of institutions, funding agencies, journal editors and principal investigators to help keep colleagues from committing fraud. Others also suggest that co-authors play a part. Pascal suggests using such preventative methods as education, audits and investigation.

The charge of institutions and agencies

The research community must work together to create a climate in which fraud is clearly unacceptable, says Pascal. "That means fostering trust and teaching," he says, "not just getting funded and getting the research out as fast as possible." According to Pascal, institutions and funding agencies can help by:

  • Educating students about research ethics. To keep students from accidentally producing fraudulent research by, for example, miscalculating data--and to warn against doing it intentionally--many universities teach about research misconduct in graduate seminars and research methods courses. In fact, ethics training is mandatory for all professional psychology programs accredited by APA.

Such training is also mandatory for any student working on research grants from NIH. Institutions are required to instruct students in a number of core areas, including conflicts of interest, collaboration, human subjects and animal welfare, research misconduct, authoring, and peer review. ORI develops booklets and Web materials to support these efforts.

  • Conducting audits. Another fraud deterrent is the knowledge that one's data might be checked at any time, says Pascal. That's the thinking behind regularly conducted research audits at government agencies such as NIH and the Public Health Service, he says. "The chance that you may get audited sends a signal that you should take your research seriously and get it right the first time," Pascal says.

He acknowledges, however, that many universities may not have the resources for intensive audits that the federal government has.

  • Investigating fraud. Also staving off temptation is the knowledge that cases of fraud will be investigated thoroughly by bodies such as ORI and APA's Ethics Office. Pascal's office, for example, identifies 12 to 14 cases of misconduct a year, although the national rate is likely much higher, he says.

In conjunction with two NIH institutes, his office is also conducting several studies to learn more about why people commit academic fraud in the first place--another means, they hope, of improving prevention.

The charge of individuals

While institutions set the overall tone for fraud prevention, individuals, such as principal investigators (PIs) and journal editors, can also do much to quell it, notes psychologist Celia Fischer, PhD, chair of APA's Ethics Code Task Force and director of the Center for Ethics Education at Fordham University. Some strategies include:

  • Setting clear rules for data collection and analysis. PIs ought to lay out guidelines for the type of data that will and won't be considered in a study, says Fischer, citing as examples exclusion and inclusion criteria for data outliers and theoretical justifications for data withdrawal. Such clarification helps prevent errors and misunderstandings on the part of researchers, says Fischer, who suggests that journal editors also include such specifications in their instructions to authors.

  • Reviewing data. Another pre-emptive strategy is checking the raw data collected by one's co-investigators before writing it up and submitting it for publication. Fischer suggests that PIs do this and notes that journal editors could check raw data as well. But that would likely be a tough sell, given the amount of time it would require, says Chester Insko, PhD, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology editor who published Ruggiero's paper.

"It would end up that you couldn't get journal editors to do the job," says Insko, also a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

  • Explaining the data analysis process. In any submitted journal article, researchers ought to delineate how they categorized and analyzed their data, says Fischer. She advises that journal editors insist on this type of detailed accounting before publishing anyone's work.

Fischer and other ethics experts concede that if the principal investigator is the one doing the data fabrication, it is that much harder to prevent. But they argue that, in the end, that person will likely be found out due to the building-block workings of science--in particular, research replication. That is, after all, the mechanism that raised questions about Ruggiero, suggesting, says Domjan, "that the research system is working."

In fact, the most recent revision of APA's Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct stipulates that researchers must be willing to share their data with others who wish to verify it.

"The system of checks and balances is an intrinsic part of science, and we're only seeking to strengthen that," says Fischer.

Further Reading

To review the most recent draft of APA's Ethics Code go to www.apa.org/ethics/code.html. For more general information on research fraud prevention, go to the Web site of the Office of Research Integrity at ori.dhhs.gov.