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Scientific Misconduct: Part I - The Federal Rules (cont'd)


The Federal Regulations

The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Public Health Service (PHS), which oversees the National Institutes of Health (NIH), have slightly different definitions for misconduct. NSF defines misconduct as:

"(1) fabrication, falsification, plagiarism, or other serious deviation from accepted practices in proposing, carrying out, or reporting results from research; (2) material failure to comply with Federal requirements for protection of researchers, human subjects, or the public or for ensuring the welfare of laboratory animals; or (3) failure to meet other material legal requirements governing research." (45 CFR s 689.1)

The PHS defines misconduct as:

"fabrication, falsification, plagiarism, or other practices that seriously deviate from those that are commonly accepted within the scientific community for proposing, conducting, or reporting research. It does not include honest error or honest differences in interpretations or judgments of data." (42 CFR s 50.102)

One their face, neither of these definitions is unreasonable. Both depend on the notion of seriously deviating from accepted practices. (Since PHS fraud investigators are much more active than those at the NSF, the remainder of this articles deals with the PHS rules.) The problem is that "accepted practices" are not well defined, leaving considerable room for misunderstandings between researchers and investigators. One key example is attribution for scientific research papers.

It is not unusual for laboratory directors in biomedical research to put their names on research papers when their only contribution to the research was the financial support of the investigators. This becomes controversial to biomedical researchers when the underlying research is found to be fraudulent. The laboratory director is punished in some fashion, but this is usually only a perfunctory slap on the wrist. It is acknowledged that each author has a duty to assure the validity of the data and analysis in the paper, but that it is a much more serious to counterfeit the data than to sign on to the fraudulent research.

An objective observer might reject this entire system. As important as funding is to the conduct of research, there are strong arguments that the author of a paper should make material contributions to the intellectual work of the paper. This does not mean that every author must work at the lab bench. It does mean that every author must be intimately familiar with the work and make an identifiable contribution to the content of the paper.

Next -- NSF Guiding Principle


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