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Case study: concerns about questionable research practices

This situational case study is designed to aid researchers to reflect on situations that would pose challenges to research integrity and ethics.

Metal cogs with words integrity scribed across
Consider and reflect on the situational examples below of questionable research practices.

Jerome is a final year PhD student. His supervisor, Professor Wilson, has gone on a 6-month sabbatical to Australia and has arranged for Dan, a senior post-doctoral researcher in the group, to look after Jerome in her absence. Dan will provide whatever guidance and help he needs to complete his project and to start writing up the work.

Dan is the recipient of a prestigious research fellowship and has a stellar research publication record. Jerome is quite excited at the prospect of working closely with him and hopes to learn something about what it takes to become a successful researcher at an early stage in his career. Dan makes time to see Jerome regularly, takes a close interest in his work, and suggests ways Jerome can improve his research project.

Jerome appreciates many of the suggestions on practical issues, data interpretation, and general research protocol. He’s not, however, so sure about some of the advice he’s been given. Dan has recommended he change his experimental design, even though the one he’s following has been approved by the University Research Ethics Committee. He’s also suggested that Jerome omits some of the data he has collected when he writes up the work on the basis that it makes the story clearer, and it will be easier to get the work published in one of the two most prestigious journals in their field. Dan shows Jerome some of the papers he has had published in those journals. The results in all of them look very clean and unambiguous.

Dan also suggests that some recent results Jerome has found, that appear to contradict Professor Wilson’s latest work, should not be included in the paper Jerome has started to draft. She has a grant proposal in preparation, and mention of these could seriously jeopardise the chances of funding.

Jerome starts to feel uncomfortable. He’s more junior and much less experienced than Dan, but he suspects that some of the things Dan is suggesting are questionable and not good research practice. He recently attended a workshop on research integrity and so knows that they don’t fall into any of the three categories generally recognised that constitute research misconduct, but he thinks they may be considered to be ‘questionable research practices’ (QRPs). This feeling becomes stronger when Dan starts to give him pointers on how to keep ahead of competitors, things such as not including all methodological details in publications or all of the relevant data. He implies that all researchers do these things, and so it’s the only way to succeed in the current research climate.

Jerome finds himself in a very difficult position. He wants to do well in his research, but he wants to do this legitimately, not through questionable research practice. He’s also feeling very disillusioned that someone he’s greatly admired, and considered a role model, may not warrant that respect.

Questions for discussion

  1. Do you think the suggestions and advice Dan is giving Jerome are sound, or are they questionable?
  2. What would be viewed as questionable research practices in your own discipline or research field? Do you think any of these are ones that researchers outside your discipline might consider to be acceptable? Conversely, are there any research practices that are considered acceptable in your field, but perhaps questionable in other disciplines?
  3. What should Jerome do?
  4. Do you think that questionable research practices are more or less damaging to research than the things that are generally considered research misconduct? Why?

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