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Health, Science, Environment

SLU program seeks to reform researchers who engage in wrongdoing, unprofessional behavior

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 21, 2012 - When James DuBois and a team at Saint Louis University decided to seek funding for a national program to address problems of wrongdoing and unprofessionalism among university researchers, some colleagues doubted there would be much of a demand for the service.

But a survey of the nation's top 200 research-intensive institutions told a different story. Nearly all of the 129 universities that responded said they each investigated an average of four cases of research wrongdoing a year. The wrongdoing included plagiarism, falsifying data, violating a subject's privacy and conflicts of interest.

The findings explain why SLU's Center for Health Care Ethics recently got a $500,000 grant to set up program called Restoring Professionalism and Integrity in Research -- or RePAIR.

It's a one of a kind program to help institutions re-educate researchers who engage in unprofessional conduct. The grant from the National Institutes of Health came through a partnership between SLU and the Washington University Institute for Clinical and Translational Science.

RePAIR's advisory committee members include Raymond Tait, vice president for research at SLU. He says the initiative is important because "maintaining the public's trust and support is critical to the success of research."

DuBois, RePAIR's project director and ethics professor at SLU, expects each training session to consist of no more than a dozen researchers who will come to St. Louis to attend sessions lasting three and a half days and taught by two instructors. An online part of the training begins in the fall and the first on-site session is expected to take place in January.

DuBois says many researchers tend to get what amounts to a slap on the wrist when caught engaging in unprofessional behavior. Some might get a letter of reprimand, and a department chair might promise more oversight of the researcher's work. But he says "it's fairly rare that an investigator is terminated." His team published research on wrongdoing in medical practice and research in the January and May issues of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine this year.

"The reason the institutions are sending them to us is because they believe they are fundamentally good researchers," DuBois says. While not surprised by the number of cases involving wrongdoing, DuBois says some people have been surprised by findings that those engaged in wrongdoing in research tended to be repeaters. In addition, he says that colleagues of wrongdoers are "very slow in becoming whistleblowers." He says about half of those blowing the whistle turned out to be people from outside the institutions.

SLU's program isn't intended to be punitive but to help prevent recidivism and make those enrolled feel they have learned from the training.

"The philosophy behind the program is that everyone who comes to us will have some kind of behavior that they need to change," DuBois says. "The reason the institutions are sending them to us is because they believe they are fundamentally good researchers."

When going through the training, DuBois says he hopes the researchers won't say that the training "was a lot of BS but will say that they found it very valuable."

He says a lot of factors might contribute to someone engaging in wrongdoing.

"Research is very stressful. A lot of these people live entirely off of grants, and it's getting harder to get funded." Adding to the stress, he says, is that limited funding means researchers must keep projects going with reduced staffing.

One of the first things program participants will be asked is when they decided to become researchers and why. The questions, DuBois says, offer a way of putting (researchers) back in touch with their core values, DuBois says.  The hope, he says, is to find out "what went wrong, why it went wrong, and try to work on skills to avoid this in the future."

While the program is unprecedented, DuBois says the approached borrows a page from physician remediation programs at the University of Caifornia at San Diego and at Vanderbilt University. Both "have demonstrated that remediation programs can work," DuBois says.

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