Thoughts on How Institutions Can Promote a Culture of Research Integrity


On May 22, I had the privilege of participating in a terrific national conference that focused on what institutions can do to foster a culture of research integrity (see the agenda here).  The DHHS Office of Research Integrity (ORI), Northwestern University, and the Council of Graduate Schools hosted the conference, “The Role of Research Integrity in Promoting Excellence: Tools for Colleges and University Leaders.”  The conference organizers’ goal was “to engage university and college leaders in lively discussions about strategies, resources, and tools for promoting research integrity for current and future scientists, and scholars at institutions nationwide.”  That goal was met and then some.  A number of institutional leaders described a number of concrete, practical, and intriguing efforts to promote integrity and excellence.

I was also given the opportunity to present my thoughts on promoting research integrity, something I have written about before. My May 22 talk dealt with approaches institutions may take to foster a culture of research integrity, and I wanted to share it here as a resource for others. By watching the video below, you will hear me discuss:

  • How the vocabulary describing research misconduct is evolving:  Over many decades we have been shocked by many stories of egregious fabrications, falsifications, and plagiarisms.  Our focus has been on the inappropriate activities of individual scientists.  Now there is increasing focus on how the research climate may contribute to misbehavior.
  • The NIH vocabulary as described in the Grants Policy Statement:  As we’ve discussed before, NIH issues grants to institutions, not individual scientists.  The Grants Policy Statement articulates the agency’s expectations regarding institutional steps to assure integrity.
  • Thoughts and recommendations of academic thought leaders: Some have identified correlates and possible causes of misconduct along with the need for institutions to gather data and engage in targeted educational efforts.  Others have focused on developing “Good Institutional Practice (GIP),” even going so far as to argue that funders should insist on GIP before issuing an award.
  • The overarching importance of communication and information sharing: Enterprise-wide efforts involve appropriately framed and at times discrete approaches to gathering and sharing information.  Thus, while we reminded the community of the need to share information with NIH about ongoing misconduct concerns, we are also cognizant of the need to do so within confidential channels.
  • Institutional and government policies that might enhance integrity and excellence: Among a variety of possibilities, I talk about the promising roles of electronic laboratory notebooks and of policies to promote data sharing.

We hope you enjoy the talk. 

Re-recording of the presentation provided at the Northwestern University Research Integrity Conference


  1. The shortage of funding has definitely largely contributed to this problem of scientific misconduct especially after 2005. To be able to compete for funding, everyone tries to publish many papers and publish in high impact journals. It has been shocking seeing the number of scientific publications that come out from many labs every year. Of course, this all comes on the expense of the research quality, reproducibility, and integrity. As a results, there is a lot of discrepant and inconsistent literature, many major areas of research that largely produced and reproduced by the same labs, and many major findings that never translate from bench to patient. Unfortunately, findings that try to challenge prior work are hard get funded and often get published in small journals. The NIH has to come up with some other feasible, reliable, and creative measures to evaluate productivity than just the number of publications.

    1. I certain hope Dr. Lauer addressed this widespread and fundamental concern (competition, publish or perish, etc.), and I’m disappointed that it wasn’t discussed in the bullet point summary. It’s the central fact of the whole issue.

  2. Can NIH create a hotline for reporting issues of integrity related to extramural research grants at institutions, including fiscal integrity operating grants by the recipient institutions?

  3. You should probably start enforcing universities to pay their professors instead of allowing universities to force professors to pay 80-100% of their salaries through grants. At what point will you stop talking about what you’d like to do and start enacting sensible policy?

  4. Hesham has hit the nail on the head. How do you expect integrity when the system itself behaves with so little integrity? By that I mean, we tell a student that if you dedicate your life, make sacrifices, and do well, you will be allowed to do what you have been trained to do. But NO! The reality is that we train so many, we send them to seminars on how to write a research grant, and we even give them “new investigator” advantages in getting grant funding, only to cut off their heads mid-career – when it’s too late to do anything else. That is the kind of integrity that NIH is lacking – NIH builds but does not maintain what they build. I can’t possibly “teach” integrity in that kind of system.

    1. Are you suggesting that the whole system stop using unqualified Graduate Students as technicians? Are you suggesting that the number of Ph.D.’s being handed out should dramatically be reduced? Are you suggesting that there should be such a thing as a professional scientist? Are you suggesting that we stop pretending that everyone can be a scientist if they just want too? If you are, you are in good company. That was the finding of the NIH commissioned study on the “system” that is now three years old. Unfortunately, the field summarily rejected the findings of the study and has worked hard to prevent its implementation.

  5. The NIH should move to anonymous review.
    NIH study sections should focus on finding very high quality rigorous work instead of being distracted by the “impressive” journals where work is published. As scientists, we waste far too much time trying to publish papers in a few desirable journals, which favor “spectacular” results and “high impact” researchers. These forces can lead to researchers to cut corners and perform very shoddy science in order to rapidly publish in high impact journals and get many grants funded. There is much less interest by investigators on producing actual validated data of high quality because high impact journals and some NIH reviewers do not care enough. Scientists need to be able to publish and get grant funding on rigorous negative results. This is the actual outcome of most experiments.

  6. Increase of NIH budget will not solve the problem of unhealthy funding situation, which is the root of the research integrity problem. It should be a mandatory rule that all universities/institutions cover 75% of faculty salaries, and grant coverage of salary cannot exceed 25%. The research should not be used as a profitable tool for universities. That will force universities to be more responsible in their hiring plan and change the current crazy expansion of research force. That will also leave more grant money for senior research staff who also need certain level of job stability.
    Perhaps NIH should do a case control experiment: Set up a control group with volunteer scientists who will get only one grant with fixed amount of grant $ every five years. The renew condition is to have one really high quality work (judged by multiple people in the field). The condition is that they will not get other grants at all. People in this group will work just as hard as they could go back to the current system if they cannot renew their grant. NIH can compare the quality (reproducibility, impact, significance) from this group with those from the current system. That way we will be able to tell based on evidence that the current style of competition indeed promotes science. A crazy idea?

  7. How about gross scientific misconduct at NIH study sections? With reviewers being anonymous and accountable to no one how many unworthy projects by members of good old boy network get funded? Does NIH have any handle on study section members of similar ethnic origins (Chinese and Indians come to mind) voting in lock-steps for the applicants of same ethnic origin. How about blatant discrimination against the black applicants and never addressed rampant Islamophobia? What is the concordance between NIH reviewers? Can we see some data on how robust is NIH review process is? If you want to stamp out misconduct start at NIH study section. The rest will come.

    1. NIH study sections behave with integrity, at least in the 20-30 that I have participated in. I never hear, not even once, any comments about the ethnicity of the PI. And the notion of ethnic block voting is ludicrous, considering that most NIH review panels are composed of many persons of many ethnic backgrounds. I have, in some review panels, raised questions about the funding of grants from FOREIGN institutions (Canadian, UK, Australian), when the NIH/PCORI rules have clear statements about the eligibility of such institutions. But with USA-based institutions, your concerns about “good-old boy networks” have no foundation in the operation of review panels.

      1. It’s not what you hear. It’s what you don’t hear that’s the problem. No one is going to openly declare that I am going to vote for this applicant because we mingle in the same circles or speak the same language. But there is a hidden good old boys network. There is favoritism and sharing of applications along ethnic lines. Only recently has it come to light how CORRUPT and rigged the peer review system is. Dr Lauer can tell you about how vast and deep the problem is. It is time for the NIH to DRAIN THE SWAMP.

      2. Clearly no one (even the most crooked members of the study sections) will not openly say let’s vote against this Muslim or that black, or the yellow guy/gal. They start by not scoring the applications for no objective reason. Half the comments I receive to my applications are plain lies (I published 12 papers supported by previous grant, reviewer said productivity low because I published “only 2”, a paper published less than 2 years ago was referred to as published more than ten years ago (and not reproduced), I provided data from papers I published in 2017 and 2018, reviewer said last published data was from 2015). Mind you this is all these lies were in the same paragraph written by one reviewer.
        What is missing at study sections is accountability. I will have to wait a year before I could get the grant (if at all) and this reviewer is basking in the glory of denying funding to a person he does not know except for my name. Why should not NIH share the reviewers’ comments with applicants before the meeting and have applicants’ rebuttal read to the whole study section? Why does the reviewer have to know applicant’s name and institution to evaluate the science? This only serve the purpose of denying funding to some and providing it to others not based on the quality of science proposed but the whims of reviewers.

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