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Being Heard: The NIH Office of Research Integrity

Have you ever been in one of those situations where you are witnessing shady things happening right in front of you, but it's so commonplace that it's part of the culture? Have you ever been asked to manipulate your data, or present it in an intellectually dishonest way? Maybe you're asked to use an inappropriate statistical test, because it gives the data "more power". Maybe your recommendations for analyzing the data appropriately are dismissed, because it changes a "significant" result to a non-significant result? Maybe your principal investigator (PI) or fellow labmates simply weren't taught how to analyze the dataset correctly, or how to know which statistical test to use on their data? It could even be that you or somebody else in your lab is trying out a new statistical model, and they're still hashing out the code in R or Python. Confronting people can be very difficult and uncomfortable, especially when it comes to things like intellectual integrity. No one (especially anyone caught red-handed, or if they're actually innocent) wants to confess to being intellectually dishonest. However, it can be absolutely frustrating to experience dishonest data presentation and analysis, especially in the midst of unrepeatable publications and experiments. It can ultimately make your research feel meaningless and without any actual benefit to society. I've been there before, and as an individual pursuing a doctoral degree, it can be absolutely heartbreaking.


At the end of the day, most individuals that are pursuing a graduate degree in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) would like to believe that the research that they do serves a purpose greater than themselves. Unfortunately, the current system is horrifically flawed. Graduate students, especially PhD students are pressured into getting positive data, by whatever means necessary. In an ideal world, negative data should be appreciated just as much as positive data, as long as the science is done right. We asked a question, and we got an answer --- unfortunately, the answer we got was not what we were looking for. Somebody had to ask that question and report it though, otherwise, people are either going on a wild goose chase, pursuing something that doesn't exist, or they're repeating the same thing over and over again, only to find for whatever reason, it doesn't work.


The question for today's topic therefore is, "what do we do in an intellectually dishonest situation"? Most likely, it is a very uncomfortable situation, for a large number of reasons. Perhaps your PI is coercing you into silence. Maybe you are friends with the labmates that are being dishonest, and you genuinely want them to succeed. Maybe you feel that the system is broken anyway, so there's no point in reporting it. These thoughts and feelings are perfectly valid, and completely understandable. There is no right or wrong answer. However, if what you're witnessing is eating away at your soul, and is making you second-guess an academic career, there is a way to report dishonest research.


Within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is the National Institute of Health (NIH). The NIH is an agency that spends a considerable amount of tax dollars on biomedical research funding. Within the NIH, there is a subdivision known as the Office of Research Integrity (ORI). The link is here:



Unlike most of the other agencies we have previously discussed, the ORI does not have an official form to fill out to have your complaint investigated. You will have to contact them directly, either through mail correspondence, phone call or e-mail. This information is as follows:


Address:

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Office of Research Integrity

1101 Wootton Parkway, Suite 240

Rockville, Maryland 20852


Phone Number:

240-453-8407 (Assurance Program)


E-mail:


This information is likely to change over time, so you can also access this information by navigating through the "About ORI" menu on the main page and selecting "Contact Us". If you decide to send an e-mail or a letter, I recommend preparing a written statement that highlights the following (step 1 and 2 are optional if you are writing an e-mail instead):


  1. Include a header with the date, your name, title, mailing address, e-mail address and phone number.

  2. Include a recipient header with the individual's full name, title, and mailing address.

  3. Introduce yourself. You want to make yourself stand out as a human.

  4. Summarize your problem. Is someone manipulating data? Are you being asked to manipulate data? Try to summarize this as a final sentence within the first paragraph.

  5. Provide details that support your summary statement. Keep in mind that there is a 180-day statute of limitations, and you may need to tie older evidence back to the present to make your claims valid.

  6. Explain what actions ORI can do to help you, and why you feel it is necessary for ORI to step in. Usually, the ORI will carry out an investigation, similar to OSHA, the OFCCP or the EEOC. You should explain that you feel that ORI's services are necessary because you do not trust your institution to handle this appropriately (if you have previously done this, it may also help your case to mention that the school has already done an investigation).

  7. Finally, close with what you hope this investigation will accomplish.

  8. Make sure to include a signature and date block at the end.

  9. Also make sure to include a footer with your name, title of the document, and page number out of total number of pages.

If possible, it is better to identify the individual that would be handling your case. Make sure to navigate through the website, and locate the directory for the the NIH staff. In case you can't find it, the link is here (click on link if you can't find it). Currently, as of writing this post, Ms. Robin Parker is in charge of the Assurance Program.


One of the strengths with writing a letter and sending it through the mail is that you can include an addressee on the envelope (have the letter specifically addressed to the recipient). Even though the contact information is available online, it is rare to have access to a direct e-mail address for the concerned individual. Writing a letter and sending it through the mail also shows that you are very sincere about ensuring the appropriate action is being taken. Don't worry about the timeliness either; sure, it takes a few days for a letter to arrive in the mail, but preparing for an investigation takes even more time. In the grand scheme of things, the extra day or two you will save from sending an e-mail won't make much of a difference. Just make sure to have the mail certified like you would when having it sent to your congressperson. That way you can track it and ensure it was delivered to the right recipient.


After that, you pretty much just wait and hope for the best. I hope this blog post was helpful. If there is anything else you would like me to add, please feel free to let me know.

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