Barnes, Deborah M. "Still Struggling To Define Scientific Misconduct," The Journal of NIH
Research 4 (January, 1992), p. 10
Those who follow cases of alleged scientific misconduct might assume that governmental-level
investigations of the cases are anchored in a rigorous, formal definition of the problem. Not
quite. The definition of scientific misconduct is a moving target, and no consensus exists among
Furthermore, long-awaited guidance on the issue from the National Academy of Sciences
requires still more waiting. A delayed report, initially scheduled for December 1991, may contain
two definitions of scientific misconduct - a majority version and a minority dissenting opinion.
Why is scientific misconduct so difficult to define?
NIH, in ia ‘Rules and Regulations" published in the Aug.8, 1989, Federal Registrar, offered this
...falsification, fabrication, plagiarism, or
other practices that seriously deviate from those
that are accepted within the scientific community
for proposing, conducting, or reporting research.
But in mid-November, Public Health Service officials proposed an alternative:
Scientific misconduct is the intentional fabrication or falsification of data, research procedures,
or data analysis; plagiarism; and other fraudulent activities in proposing, conducting, reporting or
reviewing the results of research.
Both definitions contain the ‘FFP core - falsification, fabrication, and plagiarism. But the new
definition is narrower. It specifies ‘intent' to deceive and indicates that non-FFP violations must
be ‘fraudulent,' not simply deviations from the acceptable.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) has also refocused its definition. In the May 14, 1991,
Federal Register, the agency says:
Misconduct means fabrication, falsification, or other serious deviation from accepted practices in
proposing, carrying out, or reporting results from activities fundedby NSF; or retaliation of any
kind against a person who reported or provided information about suspected or alleged
misconduct and who has not acted in bad faith.
NSF's revision is designed to protect whistleblowers. NSF mentions intent only in a section
explaining the actions to be taken is misconduct is found.
Several key questions drive debate about a definition. Should it be broad or narrow? Where
should the burden of proof lie - with the accused or with the accuser? And should the definition
of misconduct, like the legal definition of fraud, include an intent to deceive?
In an interview, one scientist expressed concern that a broad definition of misconduct would lead
people not familiar with the scientific process to see misconduct where none exists. But a second
scientists advocated a broad approach, saying that a basic principle of science is to find the truth
and help others find the truth, and any conduct that deviates from the principle is improper.
Two attorneys with scientists as clients say the burden of proof should be on the accuser, as it is
in civil and criminal cases, and that an essential component of the definition of scientific
misconduct should be the intent to deceive.
Both scientists thought intent would be impossible to prove and said that more effort should be
directed toward preventing misconduct. But one stated unequivocally that the burden of proof
should be on the accused, saying a scientists who claims to have obtained a particular result must
be able to convince someone who challenges the result.
Much of the debate concerns the nature of the scientific enterprise. Is it intrinsically different
from other, non-research endeavors? If so, should the procedures for investigating scientific
misconduct be different from those for investigating other kinds of offenses? If the answer to the
first question is ‘yes,' does that mean that the answer to the second question must also be ‘yes'?