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'We have to be open and transparent': Administrator discusses scientific integrity at Duke

Special to the Chronicle
Special to the Chronicle

Duke hopes to strengthen scientific integrity through its newly established Office of Scientific Integrity, an administrator from the office said Thursday evening.

Geeta Swamy, vice dean and associate vice provost for scientific integrity, spoke about research misconduct at an event hosted by Duke University Honor Council Thursday evening.

“[Research misconduct] is not common, but it’s not rare,” Swamy said.

There is a widespread misbelief that most misconduct is committed by trainees, such as students and residents at a hospital, she said. But in fact, she clarified, researchers at all levels commit wrongdoings.

Two to three percent of researchers admit to fabricating or falsifying data and about 14 percent have observed a colleague committing such misconducts, according to a 2009 study. Ten percent of Duke’s misconduct cases involve plagiarism, Swamy added. 

Aware of the rising importance of scientific integrity in academia, Duke established the Office of Scientific Integrity late last year as a cross-campus collaboration with other groups and offices.

The office has launched initiatives to promote education, oversight and accountability. For example, it oversees the Responsible Conduct of Research Program, which consolidates research ethics by requiring all faculty and staff at the School of Medicine to complete one online self-directed course every three years and one collaborative face-to-face program every three years.

As an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology and a member of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute, Swamy is a seasoned researcher herself, specializing in maternal immunization and perinatal infection. 

Her research primarily targets pregnant women and their fetuses and thus involves many ethical nuances, Swamy said. For example, although an adult can make decision for herself, it is hard to determine who gets to make a decision over what treatment a fetus receives.

Researchers need to differentiate the treatment that a pregnant woman receives from what a normal person does, in terms of the medicine and the dose for example, Swamy added. 

“Everyone would agree that when women are pregnant and have a medical problem, they still need effective treatment,” she said. “But we would never know what are the right ways to treat them if we don’t actually research that.”

Swamy’s own research experience propelled her to undertake administrative roles promoting scientific integrity and research ethics. In 2015, she was named a chair of the Institutional Review Board of Duke University Health System, a committee responsible for evaluating the research ethics by reviewing the methods proposed for research.  

“Integrity [is] a culture,” Swamy said. “It’s really about how you live your life, how you go through your day and think about what you do.”

Integrity is about discerning normative ethics—namely telling right from wrong—and playing by the rules, Swamy said. Scientific integrity also involves rigor in conducting research, ensuring one’s results are reproducible and engaging in science that is in accordance with society values and workplace ethics. 

“We have to make sure where we work set the tone that the culture is one with integrity,” she said. “People should feel that they could speak up if they see an issue and have a concern, without fear of retaliation.”

Swamy mentioned that along the assembly line of Toyota, there is a cord which assembly workers could pull and stop the entire line if they detect a safety issue in the parts they are working on. 

“They are supposed to pull [the cord] and stop the whole line [if they see a problem],” she explained. “Because what if you just keep it going? The part will go all the way through the line and to the cars.”

Researchers are constantly exposed to pressure that may indirectly cause them to commit misconduct, Swamy added. For example, academia emphasizes high production and quantifiable performance. Students who feel they are subject to the authority of their advisers may be reluctant to ask questions about their research procedures. 

“It’s important for us to consider how we can change this dynamic,” she said. 

Scientific misconduct can generate negative public impact as well, Swamy noted. It may provide the public with misleading information and erode their trust in science, especially when the Internet enhances the flow of information. 

“If we really want to improve the health of the public, we have to engage them in a way that they feel they are a part of it,” she added. “So we have to be open and transparent—from the beginning, and also when something is messed up.”

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