ETHICS VIGNETTE – Researcher is asked to falsify / misrepresent data
Assignment – Vignette 3 – Ethics & Laws in Psychotherapy: Apply Ethical Principles for Psychologists and Code of Conduct, relevant state or federal law, and board of psychology rules, to the following research vignette. In your response, address the following questions: What personal and professional ethical/legal issues arise here? How should they be addressed? Frame your response in context of APA Ethical Standards and codes of conduct for research; Federal and state laws discussed in historical context and criteria outlined in the Belmont Report Ethical Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of Human Subjects in Research; and university Institutional Review Board policies and practices.
In this ethics vignette, the American Psychological Association’s (APA) three first Ethical Principles, concerning Beneficence and Nonmaleficence, Fidelity and Responsibility, and Integrity, the Ethical Standards 1.03, 5.01, and 8.10, regarding Conflicts Between Ethics and Organizational Demands, Avoidance of False or Deceptive Statements, and Reporting Research Results, as well as the Federal Policy on Research Misconduct, are primarily discussed in terms of attempting to solve ethical and moral dilemmas that emerge when a researcher is asked by the employer to report only those findings that benefit the organization’s objectives and to design new studies that emphasize those findings while excluding data that might contradict the preferred findings. This case is interesting to me because I intend to conduct research on various therapeutic modalities that I have occasionally used in my practice but that require additional research. Although I do not anticipate the same situation as depicted in this vignette, I am still curious about potential ethical and moral challenges when conducting research. For instance, I imagine that it is natural for a researcher to have a bias toward positive findings. Then, bear in mind that, depending on the circumstances, even negative results can be considered successful because they contribute to understanding and can be used in future research.
In this vignette, a decision-making model outlined by Corey et al. (2019) will be used that consists of the following eight steps: 1) identify the problem or dilemma, 2) identify the potential issues involved, 3) review the relevant ethics codes, 4) know the applicable laws and regulations, 5) obtain consultation, 6) consider possible and probable courses of action, 7) enumerate the consequences of various decisions, and 8) choose what appears to be the best course of action. The eight steps not only describe the necessary steps to be taken when making ethical decisions as a psychologist, but they also include a number of critical questions to ask during the process.
The following is the case illustration for the clinical vignette: You work for an organization that pays you to do research for them. They assign you a research project that will be important not only to the organization but also will be used in making future policy decisions in your state, and potentially other states. You develop a comprehensive study that includes anonymous telephone questionnaires and individual interviews. There are four stages to the research, involving more than 3000 participants and running over a period of two years. Your initial research plan is approved by the organization, as is a plan for communicating the results to the public. Stakeholders include other organizations, legislators, state regulatory officials, and other researchers. These stakeholders are informed of the research plan and told that reports on the research results will be provided on a quarterly basis. After the first round of data collection, the organization discovers the results are not what they expected. Your employers ask you to a) report only on the results that are favorable to the goals the organization has and b) develop new studies that emphasize those results and eliminate questions that could contradict the preferred findings.
Identify the Problem or Dilemma
The central issue in this vignette is that the researcher is instructed to intentionally misrepresent the findings by omitting data that is not deemed favorable. Being persuaded not to report certain findings jeopardizes the scientific integrity of the entire study, and naturally places the researcher in a difficult position. In such a situation, the researcher may naturally wonder, “What happens if I don’t do what my employer wants? Will I lose funding for future research projects, or maybe, I will even get fired? If the employer is willing to ask this of me, what is the next step in persuasion if I do not comply?” Not only does the employer’s request violate the researcher’s integrity, but it is also likely to result in a variety of negative consequences if not followed, including mistreatment, loss of funding, or even the risk of losing one’s job. It is easy to imagine that when confronted with such moral conflict, the researcher weighs a variety of interests, both personal and professional. This conflict between ethical and moral obligations on the one hand and various external factors influencing the researcher on the other may explain why, according to several studies on the subject, more than 40% of researchers failed to report misconduct despite being aware of it (Gupta, 2013).
Another conflict or dilemma relates to that the research project is critical to a large number of stakeholders both inside and outside the organization. While some stakeholders within the organization may benefit from the research being considered successful, other stakeholders may stand to lose if it is discovered that the research was conducted through fraudulent activity. Thus, the researcher is almost certainly torn between assumed loyalty to the employer and moral obligations to do what is right for society as a whole. Overall, the researcher in this vignette works within a context of power, relating to the intricate dynamics of how various aspects of an organization collaborate to be profitable and competitive in their field of operation, in which various factors, such as organizational culture, exert both conscious and unconscious influence on decision-making and ethical and moral judgments.
Identify the Potential Issues Involved
To gain a better understanding of the delicate situation of maintaining ethical and moral integrity while working within a larger organizational structure, where power dynamics may create conflicts between the individual’s and the organization’s interests, the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Ethical Principles and Code of Conduct for Psychologists (Ethics Code) will be examined. Among the five ethical principles of Beneficence and Nonmaleficence, Fidelity and Responsibility, Integrity, Justice, and Respect for People’s Rights, the first three are deemed to be particularly relevant to the case presented in this vignette.
To ensure that psychologists “do no harm” (p. 3) and “protect the welfare and rights” (p. 3) of those with whom they interact, while also being aware of the consequences of their “scientific and professional judgments and actions” (p. 3), the first ethical principle states that when a conflict arises between various obligations, psychologists should “attempt to resolve these conflicts in a responsible manner that avoids or minimizes harm” (p. 3) to all parties involved. Numerous solutions to these conflicts can be found in the second principle, which requires psychologists to act responsibly by “establishing trusting relationships” (p. 3), to be aware of “their professional and scientific responsibilities to society” (p. 3), and to take all reasonable steps to avoid or resolve situations that could result in any type of conflict of interest related to exploitation or harm. Finally, by adhering to the third principle of Integrity, which specifically instructs psychologists to promote “accuracy, honesty, and truthfulness” (p. 3) in all professional activities, such as “not stealing, cheating, or engaging in fraud, subterfuge, or intentional misrepresentation of fact” (p. 3), the researcher in this vignette can maintain their integrity, thereby also making it easier to comply with the first two principles of Beneficence and Nonmaleficence, as well as Fidelity and Responsibility.
Thus, the central issue in this vignette in terms of the Ethical Code’s ethical principles is that the researcher is asked to violate the first three ethical principles by specifically failing to report accurately, honestly, and truthfully, and instead intentionally misrepresenting facts, which would be incompatible with developing trusting relationships and being accountable to society at large, and almost certainly will have future negative consequences that may cause harm and possibly violate the rights of others.
Review the Relevant Ethics Codes
Numerous APA Ethical Standards will be violated if the researcher in this vignette follows the employer’s request to report only favorable findings from the initial study and then design new studies to emphasize those findings. According to standard 8.10, Reporting Research Results, and standard 5.01, Avoidance of False or Deceptive Statements, researchers are expressly prohibited from fabricating data and making “false, deceptive, or fraudulent statements concerning their publications or research findings” (p. 8). Additionally, when receiving institutional approval, standard 8.01 requires researchers to disclose correct and truthful information about their studies and to follow the approved protocol when conducting the research. Concerning documentation of scientific work, standard 6.01, specifies that the researcher must create and maintain accurate records and data pertaining to their scientific work in order for other researchers to replicate the study and to ensure legal compliance when necessary. Finally, standard 1.03, Conflicts Between Ethics and Organizational Demands, in the 2010 and 2016 amendments to the Ethics Code, states that whenever an employer, or any representative of an organization with which a psychologist is connected, requires something that is inconsistent with the Ethics Code, psychologists should make it clear that they are fully committed to the Ethics Code and will resolve the situation to the best of their ability.
As a result, if the researcher complies with the employer’s request to report only positive findings, the researcher will violate the ethical standards to which psychologists are supposed to adhere. Even though the researcher would not be required to fabricate data in the strictest sense, as fabricate refers to “making up data or results,” the researcher would still be required to falsify data, which is more precisely defined as “changing or omitting data or results in order to create an inaccurate representation of the research” (Institute of Medicine et al., 2009, p. 15).
Know the Applicable Laws and Regulations
Psychologists who fabricate, falsify, or plagiarize data are not only bound by the Ethics Code, but also by applicable federal and state laws and regulations. In 2000, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (2000) issued the Federal Policy on Research Misconduct. This policy defines research misconduct as “fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results” (p. 76262), and it applies to all institutions and researchers whose research is partially or entirely funded by the federal government. An act must be committed intentionally, recklessly, or knowingly to be considered misconduct, and evidence must be presented to establish that it truly was. The gravity of the misconduct is determined by whether it occurred once or repeatedly, as well as the impact on third parties, such as research records, research participants, other researchers, and the public welfare.
Due to the fact that the Federal policy on research misconduct serves as a model for other federal and state institutions, this policy applies to all research conducted at Arizona State University (ASU), where I currently work and intend to conduct research. Anyone who violates it runs the risk of losing their job, as tenured professor Marguerite Kay did in 1998 at the University of Arizona (UA), following an accusation but subsequent acquittal of research misconduct (Ready, 2000). Furthermore, although there is some debate over whether research misconduct should be treated as a criminal offense, as it is in Denmark and Sweden, the issue is controversial, and as a result, research misconduct is not considered a crime in the majority of countries (Dal-Ré et al., 2020).
There are numerous resources available to researchers for obtaining appropriate consultation when confronted with ethical dilemmas. According to APA Ethical Standard 2.06, Personal Problems and Conflicts, psychologists must “take appropriate measures, such as obtaining professional consultation or assistance, and determine whether they should limit, suspend, or terminate their work-related duties” (p. 5) when they are experiencing personal problems or conflicts that interfere with performing their work. As a result, in addition to referring to the APA Code of Ethics and the Federal Policy on Research Misconduct, researchers are also advised to consult with other professionals and to utilize other relevant online resources. As a result, it is recommended that the researcher in this vignette consult with and seek guidance from other professionals. By doing so, the researcher can gain a more objective perspective on the situation, which should aid in both comprehending with the ethical conflicts and dealing with the employer and other relevant relationships in the case.
Consider Possible and Probable Courses of Action
Two possible courses of action emerged after putting myself in the researcher’s shoes, reflecting on the situation, and discussing the case with another psychologist. The first option would be to comply with the employer’s request regardless of ethical standards, risking research misconduct and, ultimately, losing one’s job or, in the worst-case scenario, endangering the well-being of others, depending on how the report is used in the future. While this may be a scenario that some people choose out of compliance or a lack of skills or courage to deal with the situation constructively, it is clearly not a morally consistent option for any psychologist, as it violates numerous ethical and moral standards that psychologists are trained to uphold.
The second option is to not comply with the employer’s request and instead adhere to the previously outlined ethical standards, such as reporting all of the findings from the first study accurately, honestly, and truthfully, rather than agreeing to falsify any data. Depending on how the researcher approaches this course of action, it is likely that both the employer and potentially other stakeholders will be disappointed or even upset, which could have a variety of negative consequences for the researcher, ranging from workplace alienation to not receiving support or funding for future projects, and even possibly future termination.
Involving the employer and possibly other key individuals in the process can help mitigate negative consequences. By discussing the researcher’s ethical and moral dilemma with the employer and working together to find solutions that do not violate any ethical or legal standards, the employer is given a chance to uphold the same ethical and moral standards as the researcher. As is frequently the case, being critical without offering constructive solutions will almost certainly irritate or alienate the employer. Thus, it is critical for the researcher to be well prepared and to have a sound strategy for approaching the employer, thereby assisting the employer in empathizing and sympathizing with the researcher’s situation. For instance, one possible viable solution is to report the initial study’s findings with complete scientific and ethical integrity and then, depending on the severity of the undesirable findings, determine whether and how the organization’s goals still can be achieved without engaging in research misconduct. In my experience, when the right question is asked, one is often halfway to also discovering the correct answer, or in this case, a useful approach that is beneficial to both the researcher and the organization in the short and long term.
Enumerate the Consequences of Various Decisions
Despite the fact that each alternative has its own set of advantages and disadvantages, one of them must ultimately be chosen, and the researcher must live with the consequences of that decision. One possible short-term advantage of the first option, from the standpoint of taking the easy way out, is that the researcher does not have to confront the employer about the researcher’s ethical and moral concerns, thereby avoiding the previously described negative consequences of this course of action. However, failure to adhere to ethical and moral standards will almost certainly have a negative effect on one’s conscience over time and, if the misconduct is exposed, will severely harm the researcher’s reputation and, as a result, future career.
This leads us to the second option. Although being honest with one’s deeper feelings and expressing them in a sincere and well-intended manner is difficult and generally requires significant emotional and relationship skills, taking the truthful path is often both liberating and leads to something good. Thus, while the second option may have immediate negative consequences, such as the risk of losing a job, the researcher’s level of honesty with oneself is most likely to be reflected in numerous other relationships, including those with friends and colleagues, as well as how one views work and the various projects in which one is involved.
Choose what Appears to Be the Best Course of Action
When confronted with difficult choices, I’ve discovered that asking the following two questions helps me gain a broader perspective on the situation while also connecting with one’s internal sense of wisdom, “At the end of my life, how do I wish I had handled this situation? What would I do if I didn’t have to worry about money or, for that matter, any other directly relevant fears?” By posing these two questions, it becomes clear that the first option is incompatible with the moral attunement required for being a psychologist. On the other hand, while option two may be scary and uncomfortable, it represents a way to stay true to ethical standards and one’s moral compass, and is thus the recommended course of action.
American Psychological Association. (2017). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct (2002, amended effective June 1, 2010, and January 1, 2017). http://www.apa.org/ethics/code/index.html
Corey, G., Corey, M. S., & Corey, C. (2019). Issues and ethics in the helping professions (10th ed.). Cengage Learning.
Dal-Ré, R., Bouter, L. M., Cuijpers, P., Gluud, C., & Holm, S. (2020). Should research misconduct be criminalized? Research Ethics, 16(1–2), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1177/1747016119898400
Gupta A. (2013). Fraud and misconduct in clinical research: A concern. Perspectives in clinical research, 4(2), 144–147. https://doi.org/10.4103/2229-3485.111800
Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences, Committee on Science, E., & National Academy of Engineering. (2009). On being a scientist: a guide to responsible conduct in research. National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/12192
Office of Science and Technology Policy. (2000). Federal policy on research misconduct; Preamble for research misconduct policy. Federal Register. 65(235) 76260-76264
Ready, T. (2000). University of Arizona misconduct investigation ruled improper. Nature Medicine, 6(2), 120–120. https://doi.org/10.1038/72191