Research Ethics Roundup: Accusations of Politically Biased IRBs, Plagiarism at a Research Integrity Conference, and more

This edition of Research Ethics Roundup covers controversial IRB sanctions of a politically charged research study, direct-to-consumer genetic companies expanding their research capacities, novel human-on-a-chip technology that could reduce the number of animals used in research, and plagiarism in submissions to at a research integrity conference.

Is a Portland Professor Being Railroaded by His University for Criticizing Social-Justice Research?
In a high-profile case, a professor was sanctioned by his university’s IRB for what the board considered to be research on human subjects conducted without its approval. The professor has claimed that he is the victim of political bias because his work, in which he fabricated dozens of studies in an attempt to dupe journals into publishing subpar scholarship, took aim at the credibility of so-called “grievance studies” fields.

PRIM&R Executive Director Elisa A. Hurley, PhD, was quoted twice in the article, stating that the university IRB was behaving normally in issuing its sanctions on the professor, given his straightforward breach of institutional policy.

“And one decision the hoaxsters made — allowing accepted papers to actually be published rather than notifying the journals so they could be yanked before they were out in the world — neatly captures the sorts of ethical discussions often spurred by IRBs. ‘That’s what happens at the IRB,’ said Elisa Hurley, executive director at Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research, an organization which offers ethics guidance to researchers. ‘The IRB’s job is essentially to facilitate research that is consistent with the regulations or that does in fact protect and respect the research subject involved.’”

DNA test company 23andMe now fueling medical research
More than four million customers of the direct-to-consumer genetic testing company 23andMe have consented to having their genetic data used in research, and the company is poised to make a push into the research space. 23andMe has now published over 100 peer-reviewed papers, in addition to forming their own therapeutics lab. The company’s chief science officer, Dr. Richard Scheller, emphasizes how their enormous data pool offers “tremendous opportunities for very novel and innovative research and drug discovery.” Others are more cautious:

“Some privacy and bioethics experts have accused the company of profiting off of customers’ genetic material in such a way that could lead to the exposure of a person’s most sensitive information. ‘They always wanted your spit so they could keep it and analyze it and build their own databases — that’s where the money is,’ said Dr. Arthur Caplan, head of the division of medical ethics at the New York University School of Medicine.”

 UCF scientists’ human-on-a-chip technology could one day replace animal studies
University of Central Florida researchers claim to have made an advancement in “human-on-a-chip” technology, producing a chip that contains four compartments with human cells, each representing a different organ (heart, liver, skeletal muscles and nervous system), demonstrating potential to reduce the number of animals used in medical (and cosmetic) research.

“The technology could allow, in the near future, the movement of chronic drug experiments done currently in animal in vivo models to these novel human in vitro models.”

Even potential participants of a research integrity conference commit plagiarism, organizers learn
In an ironic finding, abstract reviewers for the 6th World Conference on Research Integrity found 10 of 430 submitted abstracts to be potentially plagiarized. Organizers also suspected nearly 5% of submitted abstracts to contain self-plagiarism.

“Somewhat sadder and wiser, we [the conference organizers] have to conclude that potential participants of a research integrity conference are not immune [from] at least one form of research misbehaviour.”