taken seriously. If mishandled, an allegation can gravely damage the person charged, the one who makes the charge, the institutions involved, and science in general.

Someone who is confronting a problem involving research ethics usually has more options than are immediately apparent. In most cases the best thing to do is to discuss the situation with a trusted friend or advisor. In universities, faculty advisors, department chairs, and other senior faculty can be invaluable sources of advice in deciding whether to go forward with a complaint.

An important consideration is deciding when to put a complaint in writing. Once in writing, universities are obligated to deal with a complaint in a more formal manner than if it is made verbally. Putting a complaint in writing can have serious consequences for the career of a scientist and should be undertaken only after thorough consideration.

The National Science Foundation and Public Health Service require all research institutions that receive public funds to have procedures in place to deal with allegations of unethical practice. These procedures take into account fairness for the accused, protection for the accuser, coordination with funding agencies, and requirements for confidentiality and disclosure.

In addition, many universities and other research institutions have designated an ombudsman, ethics officer, or other official who is available to discuss situations involving research ethics. Such discussions are carried out in strictest confidence whenever possible. Some institutions provide for multiple entry points, so that complainants can go to a person with whom they feel comfortable.


Francine was just months away from finishing her Ph.D. dissertation when she realized that something was seriously amiss with the work of a fellow graduate student, Sylvia. Francine was convinced that Sylvia was not actually making the measurements she claimed to be making. They shared the same lab, but Sylvia rarely seemed to be there. Sometimes Francine saw research materials thrown away unopened. The results Sylvia was turning in to their common thesis advisor seemed too clean to be real.

Francine knew that she would soon need to ask her thesis advisor for a letter of recommendation for faculty and postdoc positions. If she raised the issue with her advisor now, she was sure that it would affect the letter of recommendation. Sylvia was a favorite of her advisor, who had often helped Sylvia before when her project ran into problems. Yet Francine also knew that if she waited to raise the issue the question would inevitably arise as to when she first suspected problems. Both Francine and her thesis advisor were using Sylvia's results in their own research. If Sylvia's results were inaccurate, they both needed to know as soon as possible.

  1. Should Francine first try to talk with Sylvia, with her thesis advisor, or with someone else entirely?

  2. Does she know enough to be able to raise concerns?

  3. Where else can Francine go for information that could help her decide what to do?

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