Defining Research Misconduct

From the Caltech Policy on Research Misconduct:


Research misconduct is defined as fabrication, falsification or plagiarism in proposing, performing or reviewing research, or in reporting research results.

  • Fabrication is making up or recording data or results and recording or reporting them.
  • Falsification  is manipulating research materials, equipment or processes, or changing or omitting data or results such that the research is not accurately represented in the research record.
  • Plagiarism is the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results or words without giving appropriate credit.
  • Research misconduct does not include honest error or differences of opinion.


A finding of research misconduct requires that:

  • There be a significant departure from accepted practices of the scientific community for maintaining the research record;
  • The misconduct be committed intentionally, or knowingly, or in reckless disregard of accepted practices; and
  • The allegation be proven by a preponderance of evidence.

Taken from “On Fact and Fraud – Cautionary tales from the frontlines of Science” by David Goodstein

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7 Responses to Defining Research Misconduct

  1. Gary says:

    I recently was certified for conducting research on human subjects because the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at my institution of higher education now requires this even for survey research. After 15 hours of online training, I have a deeper appreciation of the ease of falling into ethical misconduct. All research scientists ought to take the IRB courses whether they work with human subjects or not. The ends of the misconduct spectrum are readily identifiable; it’s the middle ground that gets murky.

  2. John A says:


    I hear what you’re saying but the problem is not training of scientists in ethics. The problem is that clear guidelines on what is and is not acceptable are not enforced uniformly and effectively. This allows a close-knit cabal of scientists to ignore clear instruction and even when they get caught red-handed, so much money is at stake that the institution refuses to even consider prima facae evidence.

    Consider the “hide the decline” issue:

    Here is what a Professor of Physics at Oxford has to say:

    “People have asked why mainstream scientists are keeping silent on these issues. As a scientist who has largely kept silent, at least in public, I have more sympathy for silence than most people here. It’s not for the obvious reason, that speaking out leads to immediate attacks, not just from Gavin and friends, but also from some of the more excitable commentators here. Far more importantly most scientists are reluctant to speak out on topics which are not their field. We tend to trust our colleagues, perhaps unreasonably so, and are also well aware that most scientific questions are considerably more complex than outsiders think, and that it is entirely possible that we have missed some subtle but critical point.

    However, “hide the decline” is an entirely different matter. This is not a complicated technical matter on which reasonable people can disagree: it is a straightforward and blatant breach of the fundamental principles of honesty and self-criticism that lie at the heart of all true science.

    The significance of the divergence problem is immediately obvious, and seeking to hide it is quite simply wrong. The recent public statements by supposed leaders of UK science, declaring that hiding the decline is standard scientific practice are on a par with declarations that black is white and up is down. I don’t know who they think they are speaking for, but they certainly aren’t speaking for me.

    Now what he’s speaking out against, as is Judith Curry and many others is the clear example of falsification, that is clearly research misconduct. The evidence was falsified through omission of key data which showed that the reconstructions of past climate were unreliable and that the scientists involved consciously hid that fact.

    But where is the enforcement? From the institutions involved? No. From the US Government through its funding agency, the NSF? No.

    When Steve McIntyre spoke at the recent conference in Lisbon, he mentioned the fact that the chief officers of Enron were not indicted for what they declared but for what they consciously did not declare, material facts which hid the true state of Enron’s financials from investors.

    This rotten apple is going to ruin perfectly good and useful science if it is not removed. Even the Oxford Professor makes it clear:

    The decision to hide the decline, and the dogged refusal to admit that this was an error, has endangered the credibility of the whole of climate science.

    If the rot is not stopped then the credibility of the whole of science will eventually come into question.

    I don’t think the “hide the decline” was an error. They knew exactly what they were doing.

  3. Gary says:

    No argument with your first statement. My point is that so many researchers aren’t even properly taught what is unacceptable. My impression is, like college-level teaching, they kind of learn by observation and apprenticeship while struggling through grad school. And when neglectfully-trained researchers herd up, the ethics are likely to devolve to the lowest common denominator, unless there is a someone to insist otherwise.

    Research Compliance offices, of which IRB is a part, are perhaps one place for enforcement and documentation of compliance at the level closest to the research.
    If you are interested in responsible conduct of research look at this link or google the term.

  4. Pingback: Steve McIntyre uncovers another trick | Watts Up With That?

  5. Pingback: Steve McIntyre uncovers another trick – where are the academic cops? | Watts Up With That?

  6. GeneDoc says:


    In the US, it is now common to have training in ethics as part of graduate training. Anyone with NIH training grants needs to demonstrate that PhD students receive formal training, and this applies regardless of whether human subjects are involved. The NIH ORI (who you link above) are great about misconduct cases, and we are required to report any misconduct involving federal funds to them for review after we make our local determination (I chair our school’s Committee on Scientific Integrity, which investigates all allegations of misconduct in our sphere). But I’m much fuzzier about physical sciences and NSF funding with respect to ethics training, reporting and compliance.

    IRBs are busy and it is unreasonable to expect them to also train in ethics university-wide, but it’s clear from these examples in climate science that there is a need outside of the medical/biological community for such training.

    But John, I respectfully disagree–training is necessary, even if there are still individuals who will break “the rules” (and I fully agree that this instance of misconduct was carried out with intent and knowledge that it was inappropriate). Enforcement is very very difficult, and the scientific enterprise is highly dependent on the assumption that participants are honest reporters of their data and interpretations. However, a hugely important and overlooked part of the training is that it is incumbent on anyone observing evidence of misconduct to report it, and that whistle blowers should be protected. Training helps with understanding where to report and what to expect as a consequence of being a whistle blower. This knowledge helps the community as more participants are aware of what misconduct is and how they can help to minimize it through their own vigilance.

    It’s been my view since climategate broke that there is ample evidence of falsification by these authors. It’s disappointing that their own institutions and the journals involved have been so reticent to carry out proper investigations.

    John, thanks for your post on WUWT. It really is “worse than we thought!” 😉

  7. mondo says:

    Gary. Its not complex.

    Common law has clear requirements that companies or persons making public statements, for example, in Prospectuses for Companies, give “full, true and plain disclosure” of all facts that an informed investor would reasonably expect to be told.

    Witnesses in a court are required to take an oath that includes the commitment to “tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”.

    It seems obvious that many of those seeking to influence the public on climate science may not be complying with these simple requirements.

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