Case of the Month

The "Case of the Month" provides researchers with questions to be discussed with their peers, colleagues, trainees, and mentors. All are encouraged to talk with others about these cases and to submit their answers or questions to the Research Ethics Program.

Case 22: April 2017

Considerable attention has been given to the problem of plagiarism, even though journal editors tend to believe this is not a major problem. However, plagiarism can take many different forms ranging from submitting someone else’s published work as your own new publication to redundant publication (someone publishing their own work a second time).

  • Are there degrees of plagiarism? For example, does it matter whether the person committing plagiarism is doing so in their own language or to write something in a second language?
  • Should we worry more about the number of words copied rather than the extent to which someone is copying the idea(s) of someone else?
  • If ideas are more important than the words, how can we detect plagiarism?

Case 21: March 2017

Many observers of science have noted that the high pressure, stressful environment is likely a factor in some scientists choosing to fabricate or falsify their data. On the other hand, other observers have noted that many people, including most scientists, do not commit misconduct when faced with pressure.

  • In your experience, to what extent is the research environment more stressful than for other occupations?
  • To what extent is pressure a valid excuse for committing scientific misconduct?
  • What can researchers do to decrease the risk that the pressures for survival will cause them or their colleagues to bend or break the rules?

Case 20: February 2017

Technology increasingly improves our lives, but those benefits come with risks. One such risk is that the benefits are made possible by the collection of personal information. Unauthorized access to such information can mean a compromise of an expectation of privacy.

  • What level of protection can we expect for information that is stored electronically in a wireless environment?
  • What differences are there, if any, between the potential of criminal and governmental access to our information?
  • Who should have a role in deciding standards for security, and when that security can be compromised for the public interest?

Case 19: January 2017

The scientific community is largely in agreement that climate change is slated to cause catastrophic damage to our planet. As of this month, this doesn’t seem to be a view clearly held by the newly elected Presidential administration. Given the risks of climate change, one possible remedy would be to develop technologies to cool the planet (climate engineering).

  • Should we pursue climate engineering despite the risk of decreased enthusiasm for mitigating human impact on climate change?
  • What factors should determine whether or not such technology should ever be used?
  • Who should decide?

Case 18: December 2016

In the heavily competitive research environment, academic survival often depends on finding novel, statistically significant findings. This can often be accomplished by choices in study design that add little to our understanding, but still result in publication.
  • In your experience, does the current system of research funding encourage bad design?
  • Is it possible to shift our emphasis to how research is done rather than on what is found?
  • Would increased emphasis on sharing and transparency help to decrease the incentives to chase statistical significance?

Case 17: November 2016

After meeting with a professor who has an impressive resume and publication history, you realize much of her research is very similar in nature. She discloses to you that she often uses the same data and theory for various studies to reduce the amount of time spent gathering data.
  • Is duplicate publication of words, ideas, or research ever OK?
  • Is this plagiarism?
  • What should you do?

The November case is a revised version of Scenario 2 created by The Ethicist Blog available online here.

Case 16: October 2016

You’ve recently begun working with a professor who has published in many major journals. Working with him, you soon learn that his approach to research involves selective removal of data to produce statistically significant results and increase the chances of being published in a major journal.

  • Is it possible that the professor’s approach to research is ethical?
  • Why might the removal of data invalidate the meaning of the statistical tests?
  • Should you do anything about this? If so, what?

The October case is a revised version of Scenario 1 created by The Ethicist Blog available online here.


Case 15: September 2016

Research is often thought of as a highly objective enterprise. However, the reality is that there are numerous subjective choices to be made in terms of approach, design, methods of analysis, and interpretation. The result is the risk that these choices can, effectively, result in false positive findings. This is consistent with a recently described flaw in science: "too many studies are poorly designed."

  • Is this concern valid for your area of research or scholarship?
  • If not, why not?
  • If yes, what might be done to change incentives so as to decrease the risk of poorly designed research?

Case 14: August 2016

The current model for funding research throughout the world is based on a highly competitive system of short-term (5 years at most) funding. A case has been made that this model "puts pressure on labs to publish a lot of papers, breeds conflicts of interest, and encourages scientists to overhype their work." As noted in a commentary in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: "The current system is in perpetual disequilibrium, because it will inevitably generate an ever-increasing supply of scientists vying for a finite set of research resources and employment opportunities."

  • Are these concerns valid for your area of research or scholarship?
  • If not, why not?
  • If yes, what might be done to reap the gains of high quality research while diminishing the negative outcomes?

Case 13: July 2016

Driverless cars are increasingly in the news. This science fiction future is coming soon, but key ethical issues remain to be solved. For example: 

  • Should a car make an instant decision to potentially save the life of one passenger if the result would be to take the lives of 3 pedestrians?
  • What if it were your car? Should it protect your life first, rather than those of pedestrians?
  • And if such a car did injure or kill pedestrians, who should be responsible (you, the manufacturer of the car, the programmer of car's decision-making software, no one)?

Case 12: June 2016

Although the Zika virus has been known for many years, concern has increased dramatically in recent months because of the risk of congenital microcephaly in children born to mothers infected with Zika. Because Zika is carried by mosquitoes, one approach to preventing Zika is to target the mosquitoes. New developments in genetic engineering are being proposed as a means to control mosquito populations.

  • If the Zika-carrying species of mosquito could be severely limited, if not eliminated, by engineering male mosquitoes to produce offspring that would not survive, should we do so?
  • If genetic engineering could shift a population of mosquitoes so that it could no longer carry the virus, should we do so?
  • If genetically modified mosquitoes were to be released in a community, what percent of the community would have to agree to doing so before choosing to act?

Case 11: May 2016

Jianguo is a third year graduate student making good progress on his dissertation. His advisor, Professor Kumar has found funding to send Jianguo to his first scientific meeting. During the meeting, Jianguo gets into a good conversation with Professor Hayashi, a leader in the field of research pursued by Jianguo and Professor Kumar. Jianguo is excited by the opportunity to exchange ideas with a leader in the field and finds himself describing some of the work currently being done by Professor Kumar and other members of her research group.

  • Is sharing this information just part of good science, or is Jianguo revealing something that should be considered confidential?
  • What are the risks and benefits of sharing this information with Professor Hayashi?
  • How is Professor Kumar likely to view the sharing of information by Jianguo with another research group?

Case 10: April 2016

A widely held view, particularly in academia, is that clinical practice should be informed by evidence. While it might seem obvious that we should rely on evidence-based medicine, it isn’t as clear what that actually means. In a recent paper, John Ioannidis has made the case that reliance on evidence-based medicine is being abused.

  • What does it mean to be “evidence-based”?
  • Is it enough for a result to be statistically significant (probability less than 5% that the reported finding is false) to be considered evidence for application?
  • Do the incentives in science protect against or favor research findings that risk being biased?

Case 9: March 2016

Because Professor Blair is recognized as a leading authority in her field, editors frequently send her appropriate manuscripts for review. However, Professor Blair often gives those manuscripts to one of her graduate students to review, explaining of course that the material should be kept in confidence.

  • Is Professor Blair compromising the journal editors’ expectations of confidentiality?
  • Can the student list this peer review experience on their CV even though the journal editor was not aware of their role?
  • If Professor Blair were to have asked the journal editor about the possibility of sharing the review responsibility with a graduate student, what might the editor say?

Case 8: February 2016

Dr. Xiong and two of his students were recently pleased to have some of their research accepted for publication in the journal Nature. Unfortunately, two months after the paper was published, it came to Dr. Xiong’s attention that one of the students had falsified the data for a key experiment described in the paper. Dr. Xiong quickly repeated the experiment with the help of the second student and was relieved to see that the finding they had reported was in fact correct.

  • Should Dr. Xiong retract the paper because it is based on falsified research, even though he was able to verify its findings?
  • What if Dr. Xiong discovered that the findings were incorrect, but the work was not falsified?
  • More generally, should publications be retracted if they are found to be wrong?

Case 7: January 2016

Ananya and Hans are graduate students working in the same research group. Although they have their own research projects, they recently collaborated on some work that has just been accepted in a prestigious journal. Because they agreed that their contributions were equivalent, they agreed to be co-first authors, listing their names with Ananya first (alphabetical order). Hans is now applying for a postdoctoral position and trying to decide how he should list the paper in his biography.

  • Should Hans simply include the paper with authors as listed in the published version?
  • Should Hans list the paper with his name first since the paper was published with a clear indication that he and Ananya were co-first authors and had contributed equally?
  • Should Hans include the paper with authors as listed in the published version, but with an annotation to indicate that he and Ananya were co-first authors?

Case 6: December 2015

Nicole and Yuna collaborated successfully for many years, but a personal disagreement has left them unwilling and unable to continue their collaboration. Nicole claims that, because she received the majority of the funding, the data jointly collected should effectively go to her, allowing her to publish without Yuna. Yuna claims that the data should go to her because although she brought in fewer dollars, she wrote more successful proposals for the research and had done more data collection than Nicole.

  • Is Nicole or Yuna correct in her presumption that the data now belong to her?
  • If you were asked to help resolve this dispute, what would you suggest?
  • Is there anything that these collaborators could have done in advance to decrease the risk of this dispute?

Case 5: November 2015

Colin has started working on his dissertation research and is concerned that no one has discussed some basic issues with him such as how research records should be kept, how data should be analyzed, or how authorship is allocated. He decides to ask his thesis advisor, Prof. Kim, but she responds that it is best for him to figure these things out for himself.

  • Is it Professor Kim’s responsibility to serve as a mentor for Colin?
  • Are there circumstances in which Professor Kim’s approach to mentoring might be appropriate?
  • If this mentoring approach isn’t working for Colin, what might he do?

Case 4: October 2015

Jorge is a young faculty member collaborating with Saanvi, a more senior member of his department. In analyzing their data, Jorge and Saanvi discover that the effect they are looking for is not statistically significant, and therefore likely not publishable. Saanvi proposes that can probably find statistical significance by switching to a different test. Jorge is concerned that switching from the test they initially planned could be seen as falsification under the federal definition of research misconduct.

  • Is switching to a different statistical test acceptable statistically and, if so, under what circumstances?
  • Is switching to a different statistical test misleading? Research misconduct?
  • What should Jorge do?

Case 3: September 2015

Maria is senior undergraduate student who has been working part-time conducting research first as an independent study student and then in a paid position. She is excited to learn that some of her work will be included in a paper that is being submitted for publication by the head of the research group. However, she is surprised to see that her name is included in the acknowledgements, but not as an author.

  • Should Maria be an author on the paper?
  • Who decides what the criteria are for authorship?
  • Who can Maria talk to about her question?

Case 2: August 2015

Moishe is a grad student expecting to complete his dissertation in another year. By accident he has just discovered that his thesis advisor, Dr. Lyshenko may have falsified research for a recent publication. Moshe is think of saying something, but isn’t sure how if at all to do so.

  • Are there risks to Moishe if he says something?
  • Are there risks to Moishe if he doesn’t say something?
  • Who can he talk to, and what should he be doing?

Case 1: July 2015

Huizhong is a postdoctoral researcher who has worked in the research group of Professor Owusu for the past two years. She has been very successful in her work, publishing several high impact papers. Based on her plans to build on this work, she has been recruited into an excellent academic position. However, as she prepares to leave, Professor Owusu tells her that she cannot take copies of her research records with her.

  • Can Professor Owusu do this?
  • What options does Huizhong have now?
  • How could this situation have been prevented?