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Are universities doing enough to address academic misconduct in research?

The search for a systemic response to a growing concern.
JAN 18 2023

Are universities doing enough to address academic misconduct in research?

The search for a systemic response to a growing concern.


For over two years, McMaster University has been at the centre of a high-profile case of academic misconduct involving now-former academic researcher Jonathan Pruitt. Alleged to have falsified data in his research across multiple journals and studies, there have been 14 retractions of studies that Dr. Pruitt has been involved in, with 11 expressions of concern and four corrections. Dr. Pruitt has since quietly resigned from his post at the university and returned to the United States to teach high school.

Academic misconduct – which can be plagiarizing, falsifying data, or even theft – isn’t a problem unique to McMaster, or even Canada for that matter. In addition to the controversy and alarm that cases like Dr. Pruitt’s cause, it is not always clear what the next steps should be after the misconduct comes to light. So how are universities navigating these issues when they arise, and do the policies they have in place actually work? Often, high profile cases like Dr. Pruitt’s that catch the media’s attention tend to be addressed as one-offs, says Sarah Elaine Eaton, who researches academic integrity at the University of Calgary as an associate professor at the Werklund School of Education. That reinforces the notion that misconduct is something that happens as a problem with one researcher or institution, rather than being a systemic issue. “That way, fingers can be pointed and blame can be laid, and everybody’s like, ‘Oh, not in my backyard. This is something happening at another university, not ours,’” Dr. Eaton says.

Dr. Eaton describes a cycle where these cases become known to the public, and universities do their best to manage the controversy’s effect on their reputations, but once that controversy dies down, everyone moves on. However, her observations of media reporting tell her that incidents of academic misconduct are on the rise, as she and co-editor Julia Christensen Hughes of Yorkville University outline in their recently published open access book, Academic Integrity in Canada: An Enduring and Essential Challenge. “In the research that I’ve done, we found that often journalists act as an early alert system for things like academic misconduct trends,” she says. “And if it’s investigative journalism on one incident or a couple of incidents, that may signal a larger problem.”

In fact, it was two journalists who founded one of the best online databases for journal retractions in the scientific community: Retraction Watch. As a non-profit journalistic outlet, the website often breaks stories about academic misconduct. Established in 2010, co-founders Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus saw that there was a lack of transparency when it came to retractions in the academic community. Mr. Oransky recalls being inspired by Mr. Marcus’s reporting on American anesthesiologist Scott Reuben’s falsifications of data across 21 journal articles: “It made me realize that there were tons of stories hiding in plain sight when it comes to retractions,” he says.

As it turned out, there were far more retractions than either of them had anticipated when they decided to start documenting them. “At the time, we didn’t think it’d be much more than a very occasional pursuit, but we were wrong about how many retractions there were – by a lot,” says Mr. Oransky. “So we now have by far the most comprehensive database of retractions that is available.” At the time of this publication, their database houses over 36,000 retractions.

Keeping up with the immense amount of retractions is a full-time job that Mr. Oransky credits to staff researcher Alison Abritis. Of the retractions that they’re aware of, about two-thirds of them occur because of academic misconduct, he says. Conversely, about 20 per cent of the retractions Retraction Watch finds and reports on are due to researchers discovering and addressing honest errors. “It’s an error and people correct it and we should encourage that kind of behaviour,” he says.

By Mr. Oransky’s estimate, there should be 20 times more retractions than are currently the case, because journals either do nothing in the face of misconduct allegations, or take years to address them. “It’s also a pass the buck thing, right?” he says. “One of the reasons that the Reuben case became important and interesting is that … multiple [anesthesiology] journal editors wouldn’t put up with that nonsense anymore…. They went back to universities and said, ‘Look, you’ve gotta do the right thing here. You’ve gotta do investigations and tell us what you find because if you don’t, we’re gonna retract.’”

That, he adds, “is just very different from what most journals do.”

The Pruitt case

According to a timeline of events created by Daniel Bolnick, editor-in-chief of The American Naturalist, where the first of Dr. Pruitt’s articles were retracted, Mr. Bolnick sent notice to McMaster when there were three retractions underway in January 2020. The university declined an interview about the case, however Michelle Donovan, the university’s media relations manager, provided a statement to University Affairs. It outlines in brief that McMaster began an investigation into Dr. Pruitt in 2020 once they received concerns from outside the university about research Dr. Pruitt had conducted between 2011 and 2015. “Although Pruitt didn’t join McMaster until 2018 and the allegations involved work done at other institutions prior to Pruitt’s arrival, McMaster enacted an investigation under McMaster’s research integrity policy. The investigation phase concluded in late 2021,” the statement says.

According to the university’s research integrity policy, a hearings committee is struck following an investigation into serious allegations of academic misconduct to review the case and evidence, and to recommend potential consequences. “The hearing process with respect to Pruitt is ongoing. During the course of the hearings, Pruitt resigned from the university and the hearing does not end as a result of Pruitt’s resignation,” the statement continues.

Typically, once allegations are brought forward to a university in Canada, either by colleagues, journals, research assistants or students, those allegations are investigated by the institution’s office of the vice-president of research, which is responsible for keeping researchers accountable to any research integrity policies within the university, as well as relevant funding bodies. “We have an expectation that institutions look into any issues that might arise with their researchers,” says Karen Wallace, executive director of the Tri-Agency Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research. The secretariat supports two interagency panels, one of which is the Panel on Responsible Conduct of Research (PRCR), which promotes responsible conduct of research and addresses allegations of breaches of policies involving funding from federal funding agencies. “So if there’s an allegation or a concern against a researcher, then the institution where that individual is employed or affiliated – they would have a responsibility to look into it.”

The Tri-Agency Framework on Responsible Conduct of Research

It becomes even harder terrain to navigate when federal funds are involved – and that’s why the PRCR was established in 2011, in conjunction with the release of the Tri-Agency Framework on Responsible Conduct of Research. The goal of the framework is to describe policies and requirements related to applying for and managing any agency funds, performing research, and disseminating results, and the processes that institutions and agencies follow in the event of an allegation of a breach of an agency policy. If misconduct happens with research funded by one of the three main federal funding agencies – Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), or Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) – the PRCR is responsible for reviewing the institutions’ reports related to the allegation and recommending any recourse, if warranted. The university must then inform the PRCR about the outcome of its investigation.

“It has to be a serious breach that reaches that threshold for it to be made public. Disclosing these things publicly could impact a researcher’s career.”

“We have an overarching policy, it’s called the Tri-Agency Framework on Responsible Conduct of Research,” Ms. Wallace says. “That is our main policy for addressing any issues with regards to the conduct of research and institutions. Every institution that is funded by the agencies and eligible to administer agency funds, they have to have a policy that is compliant with the framework.”

That framework defines issues in terms of “breaches” instead of fraud or misconduct. “The U.S. is very specific to fabrication, falsification and plagiarism, also known as FFP, but our scope is much broader than that,” Ms. Wallace explains. “We talk about authorship acknowledgement, management of agency funds, conflict of interest. So there are many more responsibilities that fall within the remit of the framework.”

Included with the creation of PRCR was the stipulation that researchers accepting funding from one of the three agencies must consent to having their name disclosed publicly should there be a serious breach of the framework, with the final decision to release that information resting with the president of the relevant funding body. However, to date, only one name has been published on PRCR’s website. Ms. Wallace explains that the list of offences that PRCR considers to be a “serious breach” is not exhaustive. “It has to be a serious breach that reaches that threshold for it to be made public. Disclosing these things publicly could impact a researcher’s career,” she says.

That approach is understandable in the case of students who haven’t yet had much training or experience in what constitutes misconduct, says U of C’s Dr. Eaton. But, “I find it puzzling when we’re talking about people with PhDs that have come up through the system.”

Fears of legal action

Universities and funding bodies alike are nervous about naming individuals who have committed academic misconduct, Dr. Eaton adds, because named parties are more invested in protecting their reputations and it’s common for them to pursue legal action. In 2015, former Memorial University professor Ranjit Chandra was forced to pay the CBC $1.6 million dollars after he attempted to sue the broadcaster for libel when it made a three-part documentary that detailed the extent to which Dr. Chandra was suspected of falsifying data across numerous publications. According to Science, Dr. Pruitt also threatened legal action against the journals investigating his work, asking them to hold back on any retractions until McMaster had finished its investigation.

Though they might not have intended to when they started, the psychology department at Western University has modelled what academic accountability and transparency could look like and the benefits it can lead to when the threat of litigation is no longer an issue. Spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests in 2020 against George Floyd’s murder, Western’s psychology department published a letter unequivocally disavowing the work of eugenicist J. Philippe Rushton, who had been a faculty member at the university from 1977 until his death in 2012.

Scott MacDougall-Shackleton, who was department chair at the time, drafted the letter with his colleagues, detailing the ethical issues with Dr. Rushton’s research, his links to the white supremacist Pioneer Fund (which was the primary funder of his work and a fund that he administered), his flawed interpretations of data, and the assumptions underlying his work that feed into systemic racism. “It’s a case where the work had fundamental flaws, and many people consider the actual topic of the work itself as unethical,” Dr. MacDougall-Shackleton tells University Affairs. “And so on both of those grounds there’s a number of reasons why I think many of [Dr. Rushton’s] papers should be withdrawn from the scientific literature.”

“When you question someone’s paper, it’s not just that you’re questioning that paper, you’re questioning their whole professional existence.”

Unethical research is outlined in university research integrity policies across the country as a breach that constitutes academic misconduct. Ethical breaches, whether at the level of research conduct or reporting, are grounds for review, and in Dr. Rushton’s case, he was reprimanded by Western twice in 1988 for such breaches. Acting in accordance with the Tri-Agency framework, universities are also required to have policies around misuse or misappropriation of Tri-Agency funds, however Dr. Rushton avoided this level of scrutiny by seeking funding from other sources, though his relationship to the Pioneer Fund would have made him a likely candidate for a conflict of interest. Dr. MacDougall-Shackleton says that part of the complexity of evaluating Dr. Rushton’s work through a misconduct lens is that many universities and academic institutions are still grappling with their own legacies and current challenges around white supremacy, which makes his conduct less cut-and-dry than an instance of plagiarism.

For the journals’ part, there has been a wave of retractions of Dr. Rushton’s papers following the release of the department’s letter. “It’s only more recently I think that many journals have started retracting his and other so-called race scientists’ work,” says Dr. MacDougall-Shackleton. “I think our statement has hopefully helped facilitate that.”

Mr. Oransky believes that for the culture around academic misconduct to change, institutions need to consider ways of incentivizing academics beyond the constant cycle of publishing. “There’s always going to be reluctance to correct the record if everything that scientists are judged on and ranked on has to do with publishing papers,” he says. “When you question someone’s paper, it’s not just that you’re questioning that paper, you’re questioning their whole professional existence.”

Dr. Eaton hopes that the increasing number of instances of academic misconduct will help institutions connect the dots and address the issue with more of a systemic response. Part of that response requires a greater investment in researching academic integrity and misconduct in the country, because the field is unfunded. Dr. Eaton says a conversation about academic misconduct needs to be fostered at the national level. Across Europe, the United Kingdom, and Australia there are national events where academics meet to discuss academic integrity with senior university leaders. Currently, Canada only has one event of this kind: the Canadian Symposium on Academic Integrity. The third iteration of this biannual symposium will be held on June 1 and 2, 2023 at the University of Manitoba around the theme, “Looking to the Future of Academic Integrity”.

Dr. Eaton says the current lack of institutional support in Canadian academia for this area of study opens up an opportunity for postsecondary presidents and senior leaders to coordinate initiatives and events that build institutional cultures of integrity. “[U]niversities are built on reputation, and if that reputation is tarnished through a breach of ethics, they have a problem, right?” she says. “So it’s in their best interest to protect their reputation proactively and preventatively rather than after an incident has happened.”

Michael Rancic
Michael Rancic is a freelance journalist and co-founder of cooperative music journalism platform New Feeling. He lives in Toronto.
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  1. Stuart Stuart Chambers / January 18, 2023 at 09:57

    I good way to prevent academic misconduct is to stop enabling it. Case in point: why would a reputable peer-reviewed journal enable deepfake methodology? This was exposed below and needs to stop.

  2. Chris Elvidge / January 21, 2023 at 11:09

    This article needs to be corrected – Pruitt’s PhD thesis has been withdrawn by University of Tennessee, so he is “Mr. Pruitt”, not “Dr. Pruitt”.