Research Misconduct

Author: Michael Kalichman, 2001
Contributors: P.D. Magnus, Dena Plemmons
Updates: Torrey Bolden, 2016


Research misconduct is defined as (Code of Federal Regulations: 42 CFR Part 93):

    Fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in
    proposing, performing, or reviewing research,
    or in reporting research results.

Complexity of Research Misconduct

Research misconduct is complex (DuBois et al., 2013): 

  1. Specifics of misconduct as well as perceptions can vary greatly from case to case. The heterogeneous nature of research misconduct makes it difficult to capture the full essence of the act with a simple explanation.  
  2. Motivation for improper conduct also varies greatly, for example:
    Personality traits
    Feelings of unfairness
    ... and any of many other reasons

Research Misconduct Prevention

Self-policing with Quality Research Practices

Good science practices minimize the risk of misconduct. For example:

  • Strict adherence to the scientific method
  • Clear, detailed recordkeeping
  • Meaningful and clear delineation of collaboration
  • Shared understanding of authorship roles and responsibilities
  • Attentive mentoring for newer members of the research environment
  • Encouragement and support for asking questions and open discussion

Responding to Research Misconduct

Obligations to Act

  • Scientist do not all agree on if, when and how to report misconduct. This disagreement is even greater between scientists and administrators (Wenger et al., 1999).
  • Yet, as a 1995 publication of the National Academy of Sciences advises

    Someone who has witnessed misconduct has an unmistakable obligation to act.

  • Documentation:
    • An allegation of research misconduct is one of the most serious charges that can be made against a scientist. Therefore, it is essential that a charge be sustained only if justified by documentation and other relevant evidence.
    • Whether one is making the allegation or accused of misconduct, clear documentation provides the best chance for a fair and timely resolution.
Questionable Research Misconduct
  • Some aspects of conduct are too new or poorly defined to allow for a simple answer about what is appropriate. Other behaviors may stem simply from bad manners, honest error, or differences of opinion, which may be questionable without being research misconduct.
  • Impressions should be validated before making serious charges, and many apparent problems can be resolved by other means.
Dispute resolution

Many concerns are best addressed by means other than alleging research misconduct. Some institutions have formal mechanisms in place for conflict resolution, mediation, or arbitration; absent such mechanisms, finding a solution to a dispute may require some creativity.

  • Conflict resolution: Often, good conflict resolution skills may be helpful or even sufficient. Deal with the problem as early as possible. Begin by defining points of agreement and then work on areas of disagreement. Emphasize the problem rather than the person. Give and ask for clear communication about what is most important to each of the interested parties.
  • Mediation: A respected third party can sometimes help with mediating a dispute. The goal is to clarify issues in a way that permits the best possible agreement or compromise.
  • Arbitration: When other avenues of communication have failed, then parties to a dispute might be convinced to put their cases before a mutually agreeable arbitrator for review and a binding decision.

Public Allegations

  • The pace of the process for dealing with alleged misconduct can be frustrating. In such circumstances, it can be tempting to discuss the case publicly. However, placing a complex, unresolved issue into the public arena can be harmful to those directly involved and the scientific community as a whole.
  • Publicity may also compromise the integrity of an ongoing inquiry and the privacy of parties to the investigation. Moreover, an attempt to circumvent the institutional process may prejudice those charged with reviewing the allegation.

Science is predicated on trust

Without confidence in the integrity of their peers, scientists would lack a foundation on which to build new work.


Self-regulation and self-policing operate to ensure the legitimacy of research, and necessitate that scientists foster an environment in which responsible research is explicitly discussed and encouraged. In part, this means that scientists should be familiar with definitions of research misconduct and procedures for dealing with it, regardless of whether they will ever be party to allegations.

How frequently does research misconduct occur?

There are some indications that research misconduct occurs only rarely, although questionable research practices may be common (e.g., Kalichman and Friedman, 1992; Martinson et al., 2006). However, there are many barriers to accurately quantifying the extent of research misconduct; for example, cases may go unreported and institutions may be biased against finding misconduct. The actual rate of research misconduct could be as low as 1 in 100,000 or as high as 1 in 100 (Steneck, 2000; Steneck, 2006). Yet, in the past 25 years, many serious allegations of misconduct have been widely publicized, and some of those were borne out by subsequent investigation.

Examples of Research Misconduct

Hwang Woo-suk’s Stem Cell Research (Sang-Hun, 2009)

In 2006, Korean researcher Hwang Woo-suk was found to have fabricated a series of experiments in stem cell research. He reported creating embryonic stem cells through cloning in two Science journal articles. In addition to research misconduct, Hwang was charged with embezzlement and bioethics violations.

Bengü Sezen’s Research Misconduct (Marcus, 2010)

Bengü Sezen, a chemistry researcher at Columbia University, is notorious for one of the worst cases of research misconduct in the chemistry community. Sezen perpetrated a massive, sustained effort to manipulate and falsify research data. Even going to the extent of creating fictitious people and organizations to backup her data. The Office of Research Integrity found Sezen guilty of 21 counts of research misconduct.

Federal Definition of Research Misconduct

A government-wide definition of Research Misconduct was proposed by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP, 2000) and is now covered in the Code of Federal Regulations for the Public Health Service (PHS, 2006), the National Science Foundation (NSF, 2006), and other agencies as well.

In all cases, research misconduct is essentially defined as: "fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results."

  • Fabrication is making up data or results and recording or reporting them.
  • Falsification is manipulating research material, equipment, or processes, or changing or omitting data or results such that the research is not accurately represented in the research record.
  • Plagiarism is the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit.

Minimally, for something to count as research misconduct it must be committed intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly, and there must be a significant departure from accepted practices of the relevant research community.

Not all instances of misbehavior or questionable conduct are covered under these policies, but for those practices that are covered, there are explicit steps that must be taken in the event of an allegation of misconduct.


Shared responsibilities for addressing research misconduct

  • Federal Agencies have ultimate oversight authority for Federally funded research
  • Research institutions bear primary responsibility for prevention and detection of research misconduct and for the phases required once research misconduct has been reported.

Phases of Response to Allegation of Research Misconduct

  1. Inquiry: assessment of whether allegation has substance and if an investigation is warranted
  2. Investigation: formal development of a factual record, and examination of that record leading to dismissal of the case or to a recommendation for a finding of research misconduct or other appropriate remedies
  3. Adjudication: recommendations are reviewed and appropriate corrective actions determined

Discussion Questions

  1. Define fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism.
  2. Give at least three examples of misconduct by researchers that would not meet the existing definitions of research misconduct. In your institution, what can be done about these types of misconduct?
  3. In your institution, what formal procedures or mechanisms (e.g., ombudsman, conflict resolution, arbitration, mediation) are available to help resolve disputes or questions about the responsible practice of science?
  4. Outline the basic steps to be followed in your institution for responding to an allegation of research misconduct.
  5. If you have direct evidence that someone in your institution has committed research misconduct, then to whom and how should such an allegation be made?
  6. If you were accused of having fabricated data that you had produced, how could you demonstrate that you really did obtain the results you reported?
Case Studies

  1. DuBois JM, Anderson EE, Chibnall J, Carroll K, Gibb T, Ogbuka C, Rubbelke T (2013): Understanding Research Misconduct: A Comparative Analysis of 120 Cases of Professional Wrongdoing. Accountability in Research 20:320–338. .
  2. Kalichman MW, Friedman PJ (1992): A pilot study of biomedical trainees' perceptions concerning research ethics. Academic Medicine 67:769-775.
  3. Marcus A (2010): ORI comes down (hard) on Bengu Sezen, Columbia chemist accused of fraud. Retraction Watch.
  4. Martinson BC, Anderson MS, Crain AL, de Vries R (2006): Scientists' Perceptions of Organizational Justice and Self-Reported Misbehaviors. Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics 1:51-66
  5. NSF (2005): Sec. 689.1 Definitions. Part 689-- Research Misconduct. Subpart A—General. Chapter VI--National Science Foundation. Title 45--Public Welfare. 45CFR689.1(a).
  6. OSTP (2000): Federal Policy on Research Misconduct: Notification of Final Policy. Federal Register December 6, 2000 65(235):76260-76264.
  7. PHS (2005): Sec. 93.103 Research misconduct. Part 93-- Public Health Service Policies on Research Misconduct. Subpart A—General. Chapter I--Public Health Service, Department of Health and Human Services. Title 42--Public Health. 42CFR93.103.
  8. Sang-Hun C (2009): Disgraced cloning expert convicted in South Korea. Asia Pacific, New York Times.
  9. Steneck N (2000): Assessing the integrity of publicly funded research: A background report for the November 2000 ORI Research Conference on Research Integrity.
  10. Steneck N (2006): Fostering Integrity in Research: Definitions, Current Knowledge, and Future Directions. Science and Engineering Ethics 12:53-74.
  11. Wenger NS, Korenman SG, Berk R, Honghu L (1999): Reporting unethical research behavior. Evaluation Review 23:553-570.