Biomedical Research

Scenario 1: Publishing your Research

You are a PhD student in a lab conducting research on Parkinson’s disease. Your PhD work has produced an interesting finding and your supervisor is eager for you to publish it. You have drafted the manuscript and it is ready for submission to a leading journal in your area. However, you are not happy with one of the digital images that you are submitting with the paper. You are concerned that the results presented in the paper are difficult to observe in the image and discuss the issue with a postdoctoral fellow from your lab. She suggests that you use a photo manipulation software to adjust the background in the image to increase the contrast, which would make the differences easier to observe.

You want to make your lab look good and keep your supervisor happy. You are also aware that your doctoral funding is running out, and you are keen to finish and defend your manuscript-based thesis as soon as possible. You do not want your manuscript to be rejected or delayed because of this one image. Should you use a photo manipulation software to adjust the image?

Discussion questions

  1. What are the ethical issues at stake in this case?
  2. What are the potential long-term effects of postponing publication for you, for your lab, and for your field of research?
  3. When does the beautification of data become falsifying data? Is beautifying data ever acceptable?

Scenario shift:

You decide to use a photographic manipulation software to adjust the image and submit it to the journal. Your supervisor informs you that she has just been asked to act as a peer reviewer on a manuscript that shows similar data and draws similar conclusions to your manuscript. Your supervisor says she can delay her peer review for as long as possible, and give very harsh comments and criticisms of the paper in order to delay its publication. This will give you a chance to get your paper published first and avoid being “scooped.”

Additional discussion questions:

  1. What should you/your supervisor do in this situation? How does your decision affect other researchers?
  2. What are some of the conflicts of interest that are at stake here? For you? For your supervisor?

Relevant ethics guidance documents:

Links to the Ethics Cycle conceptual framework:

  • Through this scenario, participants can address issues under the following topics:
    • Publish results (authors listed on papers and agreeing to co-author a paper leads to important ethical consequences) (KC).
    • Review and select knowledge (publication bias is both a scientific and ethical issue) (KT).
    • Sustain knowledge use (lost opportunity costs associated with delaying the publication of important findings have ethical implications for the author as well as other researchers) (KT).

Link to real life case study:

Links to relevant articles:

Discussion Guide:

  1. Ethical issues at stake include: conflict of interest and research integrity (including honesty, trustworthiness, respecting the research endeavor, fairness etc.).
  2. Long-term effects of postponing publication include: ineffective use/ waste of resources, undermining the research endeavor, delaying research result translation, missed career opportunities, financial hardship.
  3. Consider issues such as: whether modification omits an important factor/ finding; whether results would be interpreted differently with or without the change; whether modification leads the reader to a substantially different conclusion; accepted practices in your area of research (as defined by journals, professional bodies, etc.).
  4. You and your supervisor should be aware of the repercussions of such actions on others (including other researchers, the scientific community, funders, and the general public). These repercussions may be detrimental and unfair.
  5. Your supervisor should consider his roles as a peer reviewer and a supervisor/lab manager, and how these roles may result in conflicting interests. Other conflicts include the need/desire to publish prolifically versus research integrity/reporting of results in a timely fashion.

Scenario 2: Modifying Research Questions

You have just received funding from a stem cell research agency and CIHR to conduct induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell researchFootnote 1 without the use of viruses. It is hoped that this research will eventually inform treatments that benefit patients undergoing transplants, among other things. You are aware that Company Science will be recruiting next fall and you would really like to work for them after you graduate. You know that they are interested in conducting transplantation research in a few select areas. These are important areas of research, but not the areas that you planned to address in your original research proposal approved by your supervisor and funders. If you add these questions to your original study, it will take longer to complete.

You are pretty sure that you could modify your original research questions or change a few of them altogether in order to address the company’s interests while still completing your research on time. A colleague tells you that it is common for students and postdocs to wander away from the questions and hypotheses in their original research proposals for a variety of reasons. What should you do?

Discussion questions:

  1. Is it wrong to change your research proposal after it is approved by your supervisor? Under what circumstances would it be acceptable, if any?
  2. Do you need to tell your supervisor about the reasons why you want to modify your research proposal? What if this case involved a PI on a project instead of a student? Would that make a difference? Who does a PI need to inform of modifications to a research proposal if anyone?
  3. In addition to your other funding, what if Company Science had offered you a stipend to conduct transplantation research in their area of interest? What difference would this make to the case, if any?

Scenario shift:

You discuss changing your research proposal with your supervisor and she agrees for you to shift the focus of your research study. Your supervisor says that you do not need to discuss these changes with your funder as research proposals often change once put into practice. She explains that research results, design, methods, and populations may change without regard to what the granting agency agreed to fund.

Additional discussion questions:

  1. Is it wrong to change your research proposal after it is approved by your funders?
  2. How might your decision to change your research impact your funders? Other researchers? Future research studies?

Relevant ethics guidance documents:

Links to the Ethics Cycle conceptual framework:

  • Through this scenario, participants can address issues under the following topics:
    • Seek funding (this case explores the ethical obligations that a researcher has to their funder concerning the knowledge they create) (KC).
    • Form research question (how researchers frame their questions impacts stakeholders of the research outcomes as well as other researchers) (KC).
    • Toward next generation research (the research conducted (or not conducted) today will inform future research efforts) (KT).

Discussion Guide:

  1. Questions to be considered when determining the acceptability of modifying research direction include: whether the underlying scope of research remains the same; if the research still fulfills university requirements to obtain your degree; whether new research/novel findings suggest a new mode of inquiry is more appropriate/fruitful; if the supervisor can continue to provide adequate advice/input/supervision; supervisors’ (and/or committee members) perspective; and if your choices undermine other obligations (e.g., associated with other funding/awards).
  2. Other interests, which may result in a conflict of interest, should be clearly outlined, discussed, and managed. Obligations to the supervisor, lab, funder, etc. must all be considered.
  3. Financial (and other) conflicts of interest are relevant to this case. The potential result of these conflicts should be considered (e.g., behavioural change, allegiances, transparency, influence on result reporting, etc.).
  4. Issues such as responsibilities to funders, research integrity, and scope of original project should be discussed. It is also important to consider how changes to a research proposal may impact stakeholders.
  5. The broader effect of changing research direction should be explored. For example, funders may have specific reasons for supporting research in your specific area, and may have concurrently funded other researchers, whose proposals will now overlap, resulting in wastage of resources. It is also important to consider what would happen if all researchers ignored their original research proposals and research questions. If everyone funded to do research about X instead conducted research about Y. Consider the impact on current and future research projects.


Footnote 1

Induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell research involves engineering non pluripotent cells such as adult skin cells into a pluripotent state, thereby avoiding the use of embryos as a source of stem cells.


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