Q: When a fraud is found in a paper, is punitive action not necessary if the problem is corrected in the subsequent paper?

Detailed Question -

I came across a paper that, for their convenience, the author altered the place where the sample was taken. So, I reported this to a research institute department that handles frauds. However, the reply from the Preliminary Investigation Committee was: “We will not investigate this matter because the author has already corrected the problematic area in the subsequent paper.” I want to know: Could punitive action be ignored if the problem is [indeed] corrected in the subsequent paper?

1 Answer to this question

This is a very interesting question, and it points to your commitment to research integrity. So, kudos there!

Scientific misconduct and fraud undermine credibility and objectivity in research. Fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism (FFP) are considered the most serious forms of misconduct, necessitating punitive action. Depending on the severity of the fraud and various other factors that an investigating committee might look into, the committee can decide in favor of or against punitive action. In the latter case, perhaps letting off the offending researcher with a warning might suffice.

From the situation that you have described, the author appears to have falsified the geographical source of a sample. The investigating committee though might have decided against a punishment in this case based on the following assumptions/considerations:

  • The falsification might have been unintentional (or it was impossible to ascertain if the falsification was intentional or not).
  • The falsification might not have impacted the results gravely.
  • The correction was eventually made.

All the same, and based only on what we gathered from your question, it is of some concern that the committee did not investigate the matter at all. Ideally, at least a preliminary enquiry should be conducted to examine such a matter.

To answer your question in short though, the decision for punitive action – even if the problem is fixed retroactively – would need to be decided on a case-to-case basis. So, if we need to lean toward an opinion, we believe the committee may have made a discretionary decision in this case.

Hope that helps.

Incidentally, we have recently received quite a few questions around similarly complex ethical scenarios. Here’s one in case you are interested: What action should I take if I am not being permitted to publish my research outcome?

And as you come across as being very cognizant of research ethics, you may be interested in the following courses from R Upskill, a related brand providing learning programs for various researcher needs. For a limited period, all courses are available for free – so, all the more reason to access them.