Ethical Shades of Gray: International Frequency of Scientific Misconduct and Questionable Research Practices in Health Professions Education

Document Type

Conference Proceeding

Publication Date



Academic Medicine








© 2018 by the Association of American Medical Colleges. Purpose To maintain scientific integrity and engender public confidence, research must be conducted responsibly. Whereas deliberate scientific misconduct such as data fabrication is clearly unethical, other behaviors-often referred to as questionable research practices (QRPs)-exploit the ethical shades of gray that color acceptable practice. This study aimed to measure the frequency of self-reported misconduct and QRPs in a diverse, international sample of health professions education (HPE) researchers. Method In 2017, the authors conducted an anonymous, cross-sectional survey study. The web-based survey contained 43 items that asked respondents to rate how often they had engaged in a variety of irresponsible research behaviors. The items were adapted from previously published surveys. Results In total, 590 HPE researchers took the survey. The mean age was 46 years (SD = 11.6), and the majority of participants were from the United States (26.4%), Europe (23.2%), and Canada (15.3%). The three most frequently reported irresponsible research behaviors were adding authors who did not qualify for authorship (60.6%), citing articles that were not read (49.5%), and selectively citing papers to please editors or reviewers (49.4%). Additionally, respondents reported misrepresenting a participant's words (6.7%), plagiarizing (5.5%), inappropriately modifying results (5.3%), deleting data without disclosure (3.4%), and fabricating data (2.4%). Overall, 533 (90.3%) respondents reported at least one irresponsible behavior. Conclusions Notwithstanding the methodological limitations of survey research, these findings indicate that a substantial proportion of HPE researchers report a range of misconduct and QRPs. Consequently, reforms may be needed to improve the conduct of HPE research.

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