Monday, December 20, 2010

A Case Study in Research Integrity, Mentoring, and Slander

A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.
Mark Twain

Research Integrity

In July of this year I had the opportunity to attend the 2nd World Conference on Research Integrity in Singapore. Part of the reason for holding this conference is the increasing amount of scientific misbehaviors. It was very interesting to hear researchers from many different universities around the world discuss the issues related to scientific misconducts and the lack of ethical standards.

It seems the pressures that come with trying to develop a research career can overtake the honest intentions of researchers. While the specific classification of misconduct varies between universities and other institutions, common labels of scientific misconduct consist of fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing or performing research.

In Martinson, Anderson & de Vries’ article published in Nature, 435, 737-738 (9 June 2005) | doi:10.1038/435737a; titled, Scientists Behaving Badly, they report that scientific misconduct is very common in the U.S. In a survey completed by 3,600 mid-career and 4,160 early-career NIH researchers, 38% of mid-career scientists and 28% of early-career scientists admitted “sanctionable misbehaviors” in their prior three years during NIH funded research activities. Wow…around 1/3 of researchers putting their careers and reputations in jeopardy!

I can understand and appreciate the pressures of designing, being awarded and carrying out research studies. From research concept to being awarded can take a couple years or more. To date, I have been involved with about $6 million in state and federal research grants. And there are a lot of failed attempts along the way. The significant factor associated with being awarded these grants has been the grant writing team and mentorship provided by senior researchers who were willing to invest their time and expertise. Being successful at grant writing and scientific research requires working with partners who have a track record of successful research as well as a reputation of being honest with high integrity traits.  There is no such thing as a lone grant writer or researcher. It takes teamwork to be successful at both!


I greatly appreciate the risks taken by research mentors. After hearing experiences from colleagues who are working with early-career researchers, it is risky work. For instance, I heard a story from a friend who is a researcher and who tries to mentor early-career researchers. This is his story. Some information within attached documents have been removed.

Daniel Parkerson a professor and researcher with a university agreed to work with a new PhD graduate, Robert Haring who was very eager and energetic to become a funded researcher. RH had an idea about a research project but said the idea had been rejected for various reasons. For instance, RH proposed the idea as a dissertation study but was rejected by his committee. RH was very passionate about his research idea because it resulted from personal experiences. RH worked for a company that needed to hire a few “extras” for a film documentary. After working there a few days, RH believed he and the other extras were mistreated. RH wanted to investigate whether other extras had similar experiences working in the film industry. So, Daniel agreed to work with RH’s idea. Because it never gained any interest anywhere prior, Daniel informed RH that the plan and project had to be significantly reworked.

RH was given a volunteer title with the university and there were some internal university grant funds available. The university’s policy required that employed academic personnel be listed as the Principal Investigator (PI) on any grants.  The responsibilities of the PI are to lead the project to its successful conclusion overseeing all aspects of the study (e.g., budget issues, human subjects’ protections, research rigor, etc). It is unrealistic to expect a new PhD graduate like RH, with no past research experience, to have the expertise to ensure a successful research outcome. Although the policy was new information for RH, he said he understood why the university is reluctant to award money to new university volunteers.

Daniel took RH’s idea and started from scratch, redesigning the plan and overall research project. Although RH’s idea remained (Are extras treated differently in the workplace than other workers?), all other aspects were re-worked. After working with other scientists and taking their advice on editing and other scientific adjustments, the grant proposal was submitted and finally awarded. According to Daniel this grant was a typical team effort where many people were involved and very helpful. In fact, everyone’s work and input was the significant factor for it being awarded!

Senior researchers provided vital directions to the study’s design and research protocols. Without everyone’s help, RH’s research idea would have remained just that -- an idea -- not worthy of studying. This was a 1-year funded study. As with all or most research grants it was submitted and approved by the university’s IRB in order to protect the human subjects involved in the research.

So…back to the point about research integrity issues and the risks of mentoring early-career researchers. Before the study began RH submitted the grant’s information to a professional research conference in order to present it and discuss its findings. Now…there are some scientific misconduct issues involved with this act. First, RH did not inform any of the senior researchers or mentors, who were also involved with this study, about submitting and presenting this study to a professional research conference. Second, RH’s name was the only name listed for the presentation, indicating that the research study was solely RH’s work. Third, the presentation was copied word-for-word (except one key word change) from the grant application that the team of researchers helped create. Finally, the presentation was presented as though the study had been completed, when in fact the study had not yet begun.

(Click Bold words to view Documents: IRB approval date was May 21, 2008. RH's Conference presentation dates were May 14-17, 2008. Haring presented the study’s results a few days before the study was approved to start! The one word RH changed in the conference abstract from the grant submission is in the sentence “The overall purpose of this research project was to qualitatively investigate…” That one word change from “is” to “was” indicated that the study had been completed and deceived the conference reviewers who accepted RH’s submission).

After learning about this misbehavior, Daniel thought he would use it as a teaching moment. Daniel decided to discuss with RH the importance of research integrity and appropriate ways of working with research grant writing teams. In the research academic world, RH’s actions would clearly fall under scientific misconduct. For instance, copying text word-for-word that was created by others and presenting it as RH’s own work, is an act of plagiarism and falsification. Presenting a research study as though it has been completed, when in fact it had not begun, has misconduct concerns and IRB implications. On top of all the scientific misconduct acts and other issues, RH’s behaviors also result in burning some bridges with colleagues and universities. If you want to have longevity in the academic research field it is not smart to have the reputation of using others work as your own and taking credit where it is not due. You might end up having to be affiliated with a university outside your own community or state, where your reputation has not yet arrived!

Daniel setup a meeting and tried to provide some mentorship and teachings to RH. Daniel also provided RH with a formal written warning letter. Boy…did that mentoring attempt ever backfire!  


Soon after the meeting, RH concluded that all of the materials connected with the study were his sole property and that he owned everything connected with this study.  Although many senior academic researchers worked hard to get that study to a point where it became something worthy of funding, which it was not until these researchers worked on it, according to RH, everything belonged to him because he had the original “idea.” RH quickly resigned his affiliation with the university and reported that Daniel and the university stole his property and knowledge! RH emailed several of his friends, stating the Daniel and the university are frauds and thieves! You know what they say…a good defense is to go on the offensive!

Daniel now appreciates the risks of working with junior scientists when it comes to issues of dealing with academic research integrity behaviors. Daniel finds himself placed in a difficult position. Now that RH is not connected with Daniel or the university (other than RH’s regular slanderous emails) does Daniel just move forward hoping a lesson was learned and no more misconducts will happen? Or does Daniel go forward with submitting documents to the most appropriate investigative institution before anymore misconducts can happen? It would seem the best way to clear up all of RH’s allegations (e.g., Daniel and the university stole property and knowledge) is to have the most appropriate folks investigate the issue and report the results to all concerned. Daniel and the university has kept very good records.

According to Nicholas Steneck, Emeritus Professor of history at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and co-organizer of the World Conference on Research Integrity, "Integrity of research is everyone's responsibility. If you see something that you don't think is right, all professionals have a responsibility to raise their concerns." As a research professional, Daniel feels obligated and responsible to raise concerns to those who are most knowledgeable and assigned to investigate these matters. If and when Daniel pursues these matters it should be with the most appropriate institution -- not using RH’s approach of emailing community people, who have no knowledge about these subject matters.  

Professionals, regardless if they are researchers, social workers, or nurses will have to deal with misconducts in the workplace. These ethical matters are always the most challenging to confront. Workers are regularly faced with ethical issues that touch on both professional and personal standards.

What would you do? Would you “move on” knowing that Haring can freely make accusations against your workplace and you in an attempt to hide his own misconducts? Do you worry that RH might do some of the same acts towards others? Would your option be altered knowing that RH is currently affiliated with another out of state university and is working with them on another small grant? What would you tell Daniel to do?

Peace, DAP


  1. You continue to be very forgiving of this Robert character. He really didn't have a good research idea in the first place. He had a gripe evolving around a personal experience that he wanted to broadcast to the world at someone else's expense. He likes to be the victim so people feel sorry for him.

    Now he has you and the university to blame so he can continue to be the victim. It is his false face that hides the coward and the plagarizing thief that he is. Believe me, he knows you caught him red handed! Instead of thanking you for trying to retify the situation at the time it happened and using it as an opportunity to plead ignorance so he could grow and work with you through the grant he chose to do what he has probably always done-lie.

    You didn't mention this but I do hope that he (this guy you call Robert) is not a fellow Native American. There has been so much theft of Native American research so it would be terrible if one were actually misusing or misrepresenting information in this type of manner. If it really became known amongst his own people that your side of the story is the real facts they would see him in a way that would label him as an outcast.

    As i said-it appears that you have been very patient and forgiving with this character. If in fact you even get a hint that he is slandering you i would strongly suggest that you publicly and legally take all action necessary to expose this guy for the fraud he is. He still has a chance to man up and apologize to you for any slanderous statements or negative actions he has tried to take.

    Thank you for maintaining the type of integrity that is rare nowadays amongst researchers and universities. Thanks

  2. Hi Anonymous, Thanks for your comment. This story is, unfortunately, familiar to a lot of folks who try to mentor early career researchers. I wrote this as the result of attending a research integrity conference and hearing stories from researchers who have experienced similar situations. So, it is not about my story, but many.

    There are a lot of “Roberts” in the work place who lack basic honesty and integrity characteristics. The most regrettable part of these stories is that these “Robert types” harm many good, trusting people along their path. They use people’s good natures as a tool for their continued deceptions. Again, thanks for your comment and insight.

  3. I would tell Daniel to gather up all the documents he and the university has and forward those to the university Robert is now affiliated with. If Robert did this once he WILL do it AGAIN. Robert will continue until he suffers some large consequences. Someone needs to find out who this really is and forward it to “Robert’s” current employer and clear this whole thing up for everyone! He needs to be stopped now.

  4. Well...It was not too hard to figure out who is the real “Robert.” This is a case study in blatant hypocrisy. “Robert” pretends to up-hold the rigors of research with Natives and he is the one who is abusing this trust! It reminds me of a person who hate gays in public but turns out to be gay himself. It is very hard to reframe from exposing this guy, but will not do it here. If you can cut and paste and use Google, you will know. We all need to be very careful who we work with and if you know anyone who is currently working with “Robert,” let them know what type person they are dealing with! "Daniel" and his university should have done the appropriate thing and dealt with this obvious misconduct, but were probably happy to be rid of a problem. That’s part of the problem, no one wants to deal with these misconducts.

  5. Thanks for writing this story. As you so clearly state, unfortunately, these kinds of issues go on all the time. There needs to be more exposure of these kinds of misconducts. You indicate that the pressures of becoming a funded scientist can overtake the honest acts of researchers. These pressures may be even greater for Indigenous people. “Robert’s” bio indicates he is the first of his people to get a PhD. Although I do not think that’s true, there are American Indian’s who are financially supported by their tribes to attend and complete college. They feel obligated to succeed and go beyond the norm to give back to their tribe. There are no short cuts to success. It takes time and I think our elders know this and they are very supportive. It is too bad “Robert” decided to try a short cut and then harm many people to cover it up. We need Indigenous scholars who can address the many needs of our people. Best wishes as you move forward.