I just participated in the QUEST for Research Excellence program where I spoke on a number of issues that affect research integrity. Since it has been on my mind, I thought I’d blog on the topic. Research integrity is the reason why we have many of the regulations, guidelines, and policies in place that safeguard our research, but, ultimately, you, the researcher, are responsible for conducting your research in a responsible, ethical manner. This shared responsibility we have with you enables us to maintain the public trust and have confidence in the research record and results. Every contributor in NIH-funded research has a role in maintaining this integrity—from student to PI to grantee institution to federal staff. I thought it would be useful to give you a sense of NIH’s role when we receive an allegation of research misconduct, which is only a small piece of the world of research integrity, but an important one.
When one of our staff members receives an allegation of research misconduct, they report it to a central individual within their institute or center. This person then contacts my research integrity staff in the Office of Extramural Research. We do a preliminary review of the information. In some cases, the allegation involves issues such as human subject protections, animals, or misuse of funds, and we forward those to the appropriate offices, the Office of Human Research Protections, Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare or Office of Management Assessment, respectively.
For the remaining cases, where there is sufficient and appropriate information, the allegation is forwarded to the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) within the Department of Health and Human Services. ORI is responsible for investigating allegations of research misconduct for all of the HHS divisions, including NIH. ORI works together with the researcher’s institution to investigate the allegation, which can take several months or more. Ultimately, if ORI determines that misconduct was committed, ORI places an announcement on their website that explains what was found and if administrative actions are imposed, what sanctions are placed on the investigator. You will also see these notices published in the NIH Guide for Grants and Contracts when they involve NIH-supported research.
Obviously, we hope, and it proves true, that these cases are few in number. We believe that training scientists in the responsible conduct of research early in their careers is an important way to maximize research integrity. To that end, all researchers supported by NIH training grants are required to receive training in this area, and the training plan is evaluated when the application is peer reviewed.
I am the Agency Extramural Research Integrity Officer and have been involved in research integrity throughout my entire career. I am continually impressed at the level of respect scientists receive from the public for the phenomenal research that they do, particularly our biomedical research scientists. But because of our impact on the lives of these same people, which is felt every day by most everyone, this respect can be lost by a single case where integrity is questioned. So that is where preventative measures maintain the integrity of the valuable and precious research we support. I look to you to work at the highest levels of integrity possible, always keeping the public trust in mind.