In Research Misconduct Policy in Biomedicine: Beyond the Bad-Apple Approach, Barbara Redman recommends that policy perspectives on research misconduct extend beyond the individual wrongdoer to encompass institutional and broader contexts. She rails against what she sees as a pervasive focus on the misbehavior of individuals (bad apples) that neglects organizational and psychosocial aspects of bad conduct. Her primary targets are the misconduct policies of the U.S. federal government and research institutions.
In the U.S., research misconduct policy is grounded in the federal definition of research misconduct as fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism (The Office of Research Integrity). The Office of Research Integrity (ORI) handles cases of misconduct in fields funded by the Public Health Service, including biomedicine. Misconduct policy and its implementation by ORI are largely oriented to misbehavior by individuals, a result, Redman says, of the “rigid and legalistic way” in which regulatory policy has evolved in the U.S. (53).
The root of the problem goes deeper, however. Redman sees in the scientific community a preference for treating those who engage in research misconduct as bad apples, a common metaphor with unfortunate implications. For example, a bad apple connotes a singularity, that is, one person who alone does something wrong. It is easy, then, to think of someone who misbehaves as fundamentally different, even pathologically different, from everyone else. Members of the research community distance themselves from the inappropriate behavior in order to maintain, by contrast, the image that they are behaving appropriately. Bad apples tend to infect adjacent fruit, so it is important to eject wrongdoers as expeditiously as possible from their research positions and, sometimes, from the scientific community.
Redman rejects the bad-apple metaphor, calling for a broader perspective on work environments and psychosocial aspects of research communities. She emphasizes the effects of work context and institutional or work-group standards on the behavior of individuals, particularly in complex settings with ambiguous tasks and outcomes. She lists dysfunctions associated with research institutions that may be related to misbehavior, including insufficient oversight of research, stress and competition in science, inadequate standards for research, poor job prospects, high debt loads among students, and poor training in the responsible conduct of research (28-30).
Redman is not alone in urging this redirection of focus. Over the past fifteen years, research on the causes and correlates of research misconduct has examined a wide array of organizational factors. There has also been increasing interest in the psychological underpinnings of misconduct as a behavior that is responsive to environmental cues. This line of inquiry has drawn productive insights from behavioral economics.
Redman’s recommendations are scattered through the book, but they come down to three general points. First, research institutions have a responsibility for oversight and training. In the literature and the misconduct cases that she reviews, she finds evidence that institutions are not fulfilling their responsibility to maintain strong regulatory oversight of research. She recommends, for example, checks on raw data, data-gathering and research procedures, particularly where trainees are involved. Oversight includes, in her view, responsibility for ensuring appropriate working conditions, workloads, and supervision of junior researchers and staff (123). Institutions must provide education in the responsible conduct of research that is appropriate to the complexities of scientific work. Such training should be grounded in the realities of how science is actually done, instead of focused on behavioral ideals. It should also attend to the emotional aspects of what can go wrong in stressful environments, so that students will be better equipped to face competition, ambiguity, and failure. Redman looks to federal regulatory structures to enforce these institutional responsibilities for oversight and training.
Second, Redman exhorts institutions and funders to come down hard on wrongdoers (150), noting that they have the power and resources to do so. In keeping with her emphasis on context, she recommends that each finding of research misconduct trigger an investigation of root causes (128). She notes that this kind of analysis is likely to uncover further problems in the research environment and additional misbehaviors by others associated with the case in question.
Third, those who are found guilty of misconduct should not be summarily dismissed, but should be required to face the consequences of their actions. She disapproves of systems that separate actions from resulting harm and advocates instead for a full accounting of the harm done, both to make the consequences known, and to be sure that the punishment is appropriately calibrated to the outcomes. Reintegrative shaming, including requiring the wrongdoer to face those whom they have harmed, and restorative justice can be useful responses to misconduct (51-52). In particular, they can help a guilty researcher to become rehabilitated and return to the scientific community, instead of being rejected as a bad apple.
Within this overall set of recommendations are various suggestions that will prompt objections. In several places, Redman takes aim at federal policy and the ORI specifically, at one point posing the question: Would the closure of ORI affect the incidence of misconduct? (58). She disapproves of the ORI’s practice of publishing the names of those whom it has found guilty of misconduct (48). This stance seems at odds with her call for tough regulation, since notification about findings of misconduct extends useful regulatory information to prospective employers of the wrongdoer. She also takes exception to the separation of responsibilities among federal agencies for research misconduct, human subjects, and conflict of interest. There are, however, historical and policy reasons why these responsibilities are allocated in this way, and she presents no compelling rationale for merging them together within one agency.
Redman looks to federal regulation to mandate solutions to a variety of problems. Some of her complaints against current policy are actually more matters of good versus bad practice. She points to inadequacies in: due process for researchers accused of misconduct, protection of whistleblowers, training of young and experienced researchers, and correction of the scientific record. Deficiencies in these areas are due more to lax adoption of agencies’ rules and guidance than to bad policy. In the case of corrections of the record, it is not possible to bring non-U.S. publishers under U.S. federal control in order to mandate retractions.
Her insistence on institutions’ responsibility for oversight of work environments derives from expanding evidence of misconduct’s association with contextual factors, such as high levels of competition, or a pervasive sense of organizational injustice. Most institutional administrators would be flummoxed, however, if told that they had to accept responsibility for their institutions’ work environments. They might assess working conditions or climates; they might take steps to promote positive working contexts and relationships; they might even work diligently to monitor progress on all of these. How they should be held responsible, however, for the group- or institution-level work environments of their 10,000 employees is difficult to imagine. They would be stunned by the implied accusation of Redman’s comment that “administrators are never cited as co-conspirators for failing to ensure ethical conduct” through oversight, providing sufficient support staff, and so on (3).
At various points in the book, the reader may pause to consider how effective some of Redman’s solutions would actually be. In particular, Redman’s repeated calls for certification of various kinds prompts skepticism. She recommends that all authors of every research paper certify the raw data and the research methods, and she calls for a requirement that “research institutions or sponsors certify both the validity and integrity of research performed at their behest – namely, that the research findings are neither fabricated, falsified, nor plagiarized” (149). All researchers should also be certified in research ethics. She specifically calls for a new (federal) research misconduct policy to require “a single official” at each university and funding agency to be “held responsible for all research ethics and oversight” in the organization (153). Research institutions are already required to have designated research integrity officers, but the role described here goes beyond their current responsibilities. She mentions the possibility of subjecting every research institution to required “externally validated auditing controls” (56).
Redman’s own book suggests the futility of these recommendations. She points out that regulation prompts resistance and “ritualistic compliance” (43), to which may be added subversive tactics. She notes that, in the misconduct cases she reviews, the perpetrator managed to evade all the safeguards that were put in place to protect research integrity (113). It is difficult to see how the certifications she suggests would provide any meaningful benefit.
Overall, Redman’s book passes lightly over many topics related to research integrity. It reviews a few misconduct cases which have been better recounted elsewhere, and the accompanying timelines and charts are more like an author’s preliminary notes than useful contributions to the book. Topics appear and reappear, and lists overlap each other with repeated material. The text’s narrative line jumps constantly, as though the author was distracted by a new thought, and then another, and then another.
The book can provide a provocative read. It is likely that the informed reader will object to some of Redman’s assertions and recommendations, but her strong advocacy for change calls attention to problems worthy of consideration.
Melissa S. Anderson
University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, MN, USA
The Office of Research Integrity. 2000. Federal Research Misconduct Policy. Washington, DC: U.S Federal Department of Health and Human Services. Accessed June 1, 2015. http://ori.hhs.gov/federal-research-misconduct-policy.