Understanding Why Researchers Misbehave

Friday, 13 February 2015: 1:30 PM-4:30 PM
Room 210AB (San Jose Convention Center)
Brian C. Martinson, HealthPartners Research Foundation, Minneapolis, MN

The historical discourse around research integrity has heavily emphasized as a primary threat the malfeasance of individual researchers, whose motivations to misbehave have typically been framed in terms of avarice, moral defect, or psychopathology. In conjunction with this framing, the discourse has also been focused primarily on examples of behavior that are considered egregious and outrageous violations of normative standards in the science community. These two perceptual lenses are self-reinforcing, for as long as we are focused on outrageous deviant behavior, there seems to be a tendency to look for explanations and motives deriving from within individual bad actors.

Recently, the perspectives being applied have been broadened in multiple ways, including consideration of behavior that is undesirable but not egregious on the one hand and consideration of potential motivating factors beyond simple reference to "bad Apple individuals" on the other hand. The fields of behavioral economics and social psychology have, over the past 30 years, provided numerous insights that can be applied to understand the decision-making of individuals within the science enterprise. At least since the 2002 Institute of medicine report, “Integrity in Scientific Research: Creating an Environment That Promotes Responsible Conduct,” the importance of local research environments as factors influencing behaviors in research has been recognized. Various cognitive biases and limitations that are thought to occur commonly in human beings have been explored and discussed as potential factors influencing decision-making under uncertainty and risk. Little of this work has been applied directly to understanding decision-making among scientists, but doing so offers great potential for improving both prediction and prevention of undesirable research behavior.

Most recently, questions have been raised about systemic factors that also threaten to undermine research integrity. This has included attention to steeply increasing competition for resources, and a recognition that the behavior of scientists is not immune to the influence of incentives and disincentives that operate in, on, and around them.

Here I will give a brief overview of multiple frameworks that have been applied to understand misbehavior in science, discuss some particularly promising perspectives for furthering our understanding, and suggest that a systems approach to the issue of research integrity should be adopted to inform both the conversation going forward, and to frame further research that appears warranted.