On June 15th, 2017, The Leibniz Association, one of the largest networks of non-profit research institutions in Germany, has announced a decision in a case of misconduct against the Director of the Leibniz Institute for Aging Research – Fritz-Lipmann-Institut (FLI) in Jena, Professor Dr. Karl Lenhard Rudolph.
There are many cases of fraud and misconduct reported every year but so far we (PAASP) have tried to stay out of this discussion. First, we believe that outright fraud represents a minor fraction of the problem with data quality in research. Second, our focus is on preventable sources of insufficient research quality that are related to lack of training, missing and non-effective quality assurance processes, etc. In other words, we focus on errors that are made unintentionally as opposed to intentionally biased presentation of the results as we believe the fraud is. Poor data quality in our sense is the result of missing or not adhering to quality standards for the technical procedures and not the falsification and fabrication of data.
Yet, we have decided to highlight this new case of a misconduct at FLI. Why?
In short, eight of the checked publications from FLI contained errors such as inappropriate duplication of the image, presentation of false images, unjustified selection of the data to be presented, etc. which are clearly cases of misconduct. However, additionally and very importantly, the press release mentions failed documentation (such as protocols and primary data saved in lab journals) as well as questionable reproducibility in four of the evaluated papers where adherence to good research practice was not evident. This may need to be distinguished in our opinion from misconduct since the root cause for this behavior is most of the time ignorance, sloppiness and laziness.
Yet, this case shows that the border between fraud and poor quality in research is not that clear. If this is true, do we (the scientific community) have the correct focus when designing and executing efforts against fraud and misconduct? So far, most Universities have research integrity offices and offer research integrity courses to their students and staff. To the best of our knowledge, most of these efforts do not actively promote principles of robust study design, do not require students to be taught the best practices in data handling and reporting, and do not mandate the use of tools and resources that could increase the adherence to good research practice (e.g. electronic lab notebooks). However, exactly these efforts would bring more transparency and sustainability to the research community and targeting not only the problem of the reproducibility crisis but most likely will also make it harder for people prone to fraud.
Does one really need to wait until such high-profile misconduct cases occur to re-consider our efforts to prevent inappropriate research practices?