Rehabilitating problem-child investigators: An innovative approach

by Susan Trinidad, MA, Research Scientist in the Department of Bioethics & Humanities at the Center for Genomics & Healthcare Equality at the University of Washington

We all have “problem children.” They’ve all been through ethics training – or they’re supposed to have done so – and yet they do things they shouldn’t, sometimes repeatedly. Why do these “bad apples” do what they do, and how can we get them to “knock it off?”

I have taught ethics courses for medical students and nursing students, and I’ve facilitated many group discussions with National Institutes of Health (NIH) trainees as part of my institution’s mandatory responsible conduct of research (RCR) program. Very often the response is, “All those bad things were done by Nazis, and I’m definitely not a Nazi, so why do I have to be here?”

James DuBois, DSc, PhD, professor at St. Louis University, shared some great insights and, better yet, a possible solution in session C22, titled Understanding and Responding to Wrongdoing in Research. We started out with a lively discussion about why wrongdoing occurs, generating quite a long list of reasons. While some experts have posited that professional pressures are largely to blame, Dr. DuBois sees this as only part of the picture. Pressures around funding, tenure, and publication are analogous to the role oxygen plays in making a fire. The pressures are not the spark, or we’d all be on fire all the time!

Why attempt rehabilitation? Well, for one thing, available data suggest that people who misbehave in this way are at high risk of doing it again. In a study in AJOB Primary Research, DuBois and colleagues report that out of 100 published cases of misconduct, 81% repeated wrongdoing; and 19% went on to commit wrongdoing in different workplaces.

So, ok: rehabilitation makes sense on those grounds. My own sense is that, given that training/mentoring in management, administration, and communication are pretty much nonexistent within the academy (and are sometimes actively selected against!), it’s only fair to start out by giving wrongdoers the benefit of the doubt.

Perhaps surprisingly, however, it turns out that the standard approach – programs aimed at ethics education and formal training in responsible conduct of research like the ones I’ve been involved with – don’t change behavior. One study showed that such training actually correlated with worse behavior!

Dr. DuBois presented a new program, RePAIR (Restoring Professionalism & Integrity in Research), aimed at teaching new habits and ways of thinking to researchers who have acted unethically. This innovative program is a three-day, in-person, small group intervention that is directed toward problem solving and skill development, rather than either informational content or punishment. It’s launching in January.

On Day 1, the focus will be on core values and obstacles to integrity, with guided self-reflection to help researchers remember why they’re doing this work and consider what has shaped their professional development so far. The Day 2 agenda focuses on ethical problem solving, and on day three, program staff help participants create a professional development plan. Follow-up calls will occur at two weeks, six weeks, and three months post intervention to support participants’ adoption of new behaviors and to assess program outcomes.

I wish the team luck with this novel approach, and I’ll be staying tuned to hear how it goes!