The Role of Honesty in Research

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A researcher’s freedom to advance knowledge is tied to his or her responsibility to be honest. Science as an enterprise producing reliable knowledge is based on the assumption of honesty. Science is predicated on agreed-upon systematic procedures for determining the empirical or theoretical basis of a proposition. Dishonest science violates that agreement and therefore violates a defining characteristic of science.

Honesty is the principal value that underlies all of the other relationship val-ues. For example, without an honest foundation, realizing the values of openness, accountability, and fairness would be impossible.

Scientific institutions and stakeholders start with the assumption of honesty. Peer reviewers, granting agencies, journal editors, commercial research and development managers, policy makers, and other players in the scientific enterprise all start with an assumption of the trustworthiness of the reporting scientist and research team. Dishonesty undermines not only the results of the specific research but also the entire scientific enterprise itself, because it threatens the trustworthiness of the scientific endeavor.

Being honest is not always straightforward. It may not be easy to decide what to do with outlier data, for example, or when one suspects fraud in published research. A single outlier data point may be legitimately interpreted as a malfunctioning instrument or a contaminated sample. However, true scientific integrity requires the disclosure of the exclusion of a data point and the effect of that exclusion unless the contamination or malfunction is documented, not merely conjectured. There are accepted statistical methods and standards for dealing with outlier data, although questions are being raised about how often these are followed in certain fields (Thiese et al., 2015).

Dishonesty can take many forms. It may refer to out-and-out fabrication or falsification of data or reporting of results or plagiarism. It includes such things as misrepresentation (e.g., avoiding blame, claiming that protocol requirements have been followed when they have not, or producing significant results by altering experiments that have been previously conducted), nonreporting of phenomena, cherry-picking of data, or overenhancing pictorial representations of data. Honest work includes accurate reporting of what was done, including the methods used to do that work. Thus, dishonesty can encompass lying by omission, as in leaving out data that change the overall conclusions or systematically publishing only trials that yield positive results. The “file drawer” effect was first discussed almost 40 years ago; Robert Rosenthal (1979) presented the extreme view that “journals are filled with the 5 percent of the studies that show Type I errors, while the file drawers are filled with the 95 percent of the studies that show non-significant results.” This hides the possibility of results being published from 1 significant trial in an experiment of 100 trials, as well as experiments that were conducted and then altered in order to produce the desired results. The file drawer effect is a result of publication bias and selective reporting, the probability that a study will be published depending on the significance of its results (Scargle, 2000). As the incentives for researchers to publish in top journals increase, so too do these biases and the file drawer effect.

Another example of dishonesty by omission is failing to report all funding sources where that information is relevant to assessing potential biases that might influence the integrity of the work. Conversely, dishonesty can also include reporting of nonexistent funding sources, giving the impression that the research was conducted with more support and so may have been more thorough than in actuality.

Beyond the individual researcher, those engaged in assessing research, whether those who are funding it or participating in any level of the peer review process, also have fundamental responsibilities of honesty. Most centrally, those assessing the quality of science must be honest in their assessments and aware of and honest in reporting their own conflicts of interest or any cognitive biases that may skew their judgment in self-serving ways. There is also a need to guard against unconscious bias, sometimes by refusing to assess work even when a potential reviewer is convinced that he or she can be objective. Efforts to protect honesty should be reinforced by the organizations and systems within which those assessors function. Universities, research organizations, journals, funding agencies, and professional societies must all work to hold each other to honest interactions without favoritism and with potentially biasing factors disclosed.


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