Faith in Research – Guardians of True Science

Plagiarism in the final work, inventing data or harming the careers of colleagues: Such cases make headlines, but occur much less frequently than one might think, says Sabine Chai, managing director of Austrian Agency for Research Integrity (ÖAWI). In an interview with “Wiener Zeitung” on the sidelines of the event, she explained what forms scientific misconduct can take Alpbach Tech Talks.

Vienna newspaper: Thousands of studies appear every year. In the vast pond, how do you find individuals guilty of misconduct, and how many are there?

Sabine Chai: In order to be able to calculate the percentage, we need to know how many research projects are being implemented in total. We only come to cases where there is really a suspicion, and that is only the case with a very small percentage. The vast majority of scholars, doctoral students and diploma students work honestly and responsibly. Crimes are by no means the norm.

Sabine Chai is a communications specialist with experience in teaching, research, and consulting in academia and non-profit organizations.  As Director General of the Austrian Agency for Research Integrity, she works with the scientific community to improve the safety of research processes.  - © ÖAWI
Sabine Chai is a communications specialist with experience in teaching, research, and consulting in academia and non-profit organizations. As Director General of the Austrian Agency for Research Integrity, she works with the scientific community to improve the safety of research processes. – © ÖAWI

Is the ratio less than one percent or less than one per thousand?

We don’t have numbers for that, but if something goes wrong, it’s clearly very relevant. In 2021, the OeAWI office received 64 requests for advice. Our Research Integrity Committee handled 23 cases. Including seven open inquiries from 2020, 30 inquiries were processed in the previous year. Usually larger research institutions solve their issues on their own, we come to us with cases that are complex or those that cannot be completed at the institution due to bias. We are currently closing a case that clearly demonstrates the importance of protecting good scientific practice.

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What is this case?

Since our procedures are confidential, I can’t say anything in advance. But the main point is that search results are used by many people to make decisions. If the published results turn out to be untenable, this could have disastrous consequences.

What forms of scientific misconduct exist?

The most common types are falsification or fabrication of data and plagiarism. The falsification or fabrication of data in particular has a direct impact on the scientific process. This is worked by each researcher making their findings available to others. Then both of you have a little bit of knowledge that the next one can build on, and so the whole knowledge grows. But if any part is defective or defective, the pyramid collapses. Plagiarism is stored differently. They treat intellectual property, for example by not giving the right people credit for their work, but by copying or not citing others and making use of it is not theirs. This is also systematic, but in terms of trusting the science, it makes it much more difficult when manipulating the data.

and other forms?

Scientific misconduct also includes obstruction or sabotage of the research activities of others or professional discrimination against whistleblowers. Furthermore, the intentional obstruction of research functions, for example by allowing data to disappear, damaging or destroying research equipment, or providing incorrect information in funding applications, which may harm others. This is especially important for young researchers because they are lower in the hierarchy.

How do you know something like this is happening?

Someone gives hints. These can be members of a research team, people from the same institute, research partners, or strangers. This can also happen later, when the publication appears and colleagues believe that the originality of the discovery is impossible.

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And when will you be active?

In order to take action, we need proof of suspicion. If we have enough, we’ll get started. Cases are handled in the strictest confidence in order to enable independent and fair procedures for all involved, as misconduct may or may not occur, for example if the whistleblower wants to tarnish the image of others. everything is possible. When the commission accepts a case for investigation, there is a standardized process: the seven closest outside members administer the procedure, and we also appoint experts if necessary. After investigation, we make a recommendation to the institution responsible for taking appropriate action.

What happens when an organization puts its head in the sand?

This can also happen. While we ask for feedback, the Foundation is not obligated to respond.

How do you protect whistleblowers?

Before the start of the main proceedings, the whistleblower will have their consent to contact the accused party. A transparent and fair process must, of course, include the possibility for both parties to express an opinion. If the notifying party wishes to remain anonymous, the Committee must decide on a case-by-case basis whether the proceeding can be pursued in the circumstances. In many cases, suspects have no difficulty finding out who the whistleblower might be, since only a few people have access to this information. Some whistleblowers hesitate because they fear harmful effects. This should be discussed so that they are aware of the risks.

What motivates researchers to counterfeit and misconduct?

One can only guess the situations that lead to someone doing this. It may also happen that you then don’t know who changed the data, for example, because many people are involved in many places in a research project. However, violations of good scientific practice occur with a much greater frequency than forgeries. These include discrepancies in authorship. In the code of good practice, the basic assumption is that any named author is fully responsible for everything in the publication and, when not, should be given credit. However, in practice, not everyone always fully checks the work of others. This is why it is a good solution to analyze who did what in posts.

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One gets the impression that cases of plagiarism are most common, especially when politicians are caught doing so. Is that correct?

Cases of plagiarism are most prevalent in the media and this distorts the picture of its impact on the actual scientific process. These are often theses from people who have other jobs but have written an academic paper for their degree. Of the sum of all the studies, the vast majority are flawless. If cases of misconduct were like a needle in a haystack, plagiarism would be just a subset of the pins. Timely prevention of this behavior and investigation of suspected cases is important to the quality of science, but in public perception it is also important to monitor relationships.

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