Research Misconduct— What Is It
and How Can You Avoid It?
It’s past midnight and you are up against a deadline in your organic hemistry course. You are writing an introduction section for a lab report due later that morning,
and you realize that several paragraphs
of a paper you wrote last year address
this same topic. Since the ideas and
words are originally yours, what’s the
harm of reusing this text for the new
If the duplicated material had been
data or conclusions, rather than background, would that alter your opinion?
Or, if you’ve presented any of the material at a conference prior to publication,
should that be cited?
By definition and example
According to the Office of Research
Integrity (ORI), a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,
the body responsible for most scientific
integrity oversight in the United States,
this type of double-dipping or “self-plagiarism” can be a serious
offense. In professional publications, self-plagiarism is not permissible. The journal publisher (not the author) maintains copyright
for a publication, so the author cannot re-publish the exact words
without correctly citing them. Ronald Breslow, one of the world’s
most prominent chemists and a former president of ACS, had a
Perspective piece withdrawn from the Journal of the American
Chemical Society in 2012 after it was shown to contain many
passages he had published before. Yet many leading scientists
defended his work, saying the repetition was completely consistent with the purpose of a Perspective article.
ORI divides research misconduct into three categories: fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism. Fabrication involves inventing
data without actually doing the experiments claimed. Falsification refers to the manipulation or omission of data or methods.
This can occur if a researcher thinks obtaining the desired results
to bolster a theory is more important than reporting accurate
results. Plagiarism is the presentation of words or ideas without
Ethical guidelines and trust
Although these types of research misconduct may seem easy
to avoid, they actually occur quite frequently. The National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) Office of Inspector General detected
plagiarism in over 1% of successful grant proposals in 2011, and
its Agency Financial Report claims that research misconduct has
tripled in the past 10 years. These transgressions are not always
intentional, however; the ethical guidelines regarding publication are complicated enough that even experienced professors
struggle with them. Miguel Roig has written a guide for the ORI
on avoiding questionable practices, which includes a list of 26
important guidelines. The American Chemical Society also offers
advice in its document “Ethical Guidelines to Publication of
Chemical Research.” Individual schools and professors may also
have their own ethical requirements that may differ from other
sources, so it is always a good idea to review the relevant requirements whenever you’re writing.
Guarding against research misconduct should not be taken
lightly, because it can have serious consequences. Many colleges