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Case study: suspicions of misconduct

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

Neela and Marie are two first-year PhD students in the same institute at a well-known, and very research-active university. Their two supervisors have a joint project, and suggest that Neela and Marie work on it together, as it will provide the groundwork for each of their individual PhD projects.

All seems to go well for a few months, but then, quite suddenly, Neela’s experiments seem to encounter problems. It’s an anxious time for Neela, as she’ll soon need to start preparing her first-year report. She knows she must successfully complete this stage of her PhD to progress to the next year and ultimately be registered for a PhD. Marie’s experiments don’t, however, appear to be affected. In fact, they seem to be producing amazing results.

Neela not only gets more and more anxious, she starts to have unwelcome thoughts about Marie’s results and starts to wonder why, when they’re both working with the same materials, and fairly similar conditions, they’re having such different outcomes.

Neela starts to think that Marie may be manipulating her results. Her concerns extend beyond just their respective first-year reports, because she and Marie will need to use the results from this preliminary joint project in their individual PhD projects. If the basic results that will form the foundation for further work can’t be trusted, it will affect all of her PhD work.

Neela doesn’t know what to do. She’s scared to tell anyone about her suspicions in case they feel she’s just out to discredit a contemporary. The research environment in her institute is very intense and competitive, and with grant funding cuts and jobs at risk she’s also concerned that any accusation, whether or not proven, could blight someone’s career.

Questions for discussion

  1. Do you think Neela has genuine cause for concern about Marie’s results? Do you think there could be any other reasons for the differences in research outcomes she’s seeing?
  2. What should Neela do?
  3. Do you think there are things that could be done to help PhD students understand and deal with such situations?
  4. What sorts of pressures might lead to a researcher engaging in research misconduct or questionable practices?
  5. Should researchers who are found guilty of misconduct be penalised? How? Do you think there should be special considerations for junior researchers?

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