Category Archives: Compliance

Self-plagiarism: Is there really a problem with it? (Spoiler alert: Yeah, there is, and it’s a serious one)

Title page of self-plagiarism white paper from iThenticate“Writers often claim that because they are the authors, they can reuse their work, either in full or in excerpts, over and over again. How can republishing one’s own work be defined as plagiarism if the author has only used his or her own words and ideas?”

It depends on the kind of writing you’re doing. In marketing, for example, the best way to stay consistent and on-message is to use the same words over and over when you write, say, a webpage, a brochure, and your boss’s presentation for a trade show.

But you are a scholar, a researcher. You’re held to a different and higher standard. There’s an expectation that everything you publish is not only your own work but also new, fresh, and original. And that makes it an entirely different matter.

To make it clear just how different, the Office of Research Compliance and Ethics has posted a white paper on self-plagiarism on its website. The paper was produced by iThenticate, a producer of professional plagiarism detection and prevention software (it compares manuscripts against a database of over 43 billion web pages and 130 million content items). The quotes above and below are from the white paper.

“This white paper explores the definition of self-plagiarism, how it crosses into copyright laws and ethical issues, and the different ways an author can avoid this increasingly controversial act of scholarly misconduct.”

N.C. A&T uses iThenticate as a check against plagiarism, accidental or not, selfie or not, on research proposals.  It has helped a number of researchers avoid problems.

Click here for the white paper. And be careful out there.

Research integrity and ‘The Art of War’

Cover of an edition of The Art of WarIf anyone needs a reminder of the damage that can be caused when research integrity is called into question — rightly or wrongly — take a look at the news coverage of N.C. State and UNC-Chapel Hill lately.

It’s hard to argue against the idea that any time the news media’s attention is drawn to research integrity questions, everyone involved loses.  Accusations tend to stick in the public consciousness regardless of the outcome, especially in complex, drawn-out situations. Even when the process of correcting scientific errors plays out as it should — as may well be case now at State — it is at best a slow, painstaking process that doesn’t lend itself well to the appetite of  the news media and the public for quick, clear resolutions.

The Art of War offers a lesson that applies especially to well to these situations: The highest virtue is not to win a battle, but rather to win without a battle. Avoiding a fight — in this case by conducting research in an unquestionably rigorous way and taking any questions about the results seriously rather than defensively– is even better than winning.  That doesn’t mean you can necessarily avoid being dragged into the mud by someone with an agenda, but it’s your best defense.

The researchers in the N.C. State case had a chance to avoid going to war over their results but chose a stonewalling strategy that invited trouble even if they’re right. In Chapel Hill … what a mess. The researcher herself may or may not have produced valid results, but when she went to CNN, her own administration chose to go to the mattresses, questioning results they found problematic in a way that, so far, at least, has generated more heat than light.

Details and links follow the jump.

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What you missed this summer if you were away

Welcome back, faculty and student researchers who were gone this summer.  To catch up on what you missed, here’s a roundup of the top research news from the summer. Click on the headlines to read more.

NIH, other agencies change conflict of interest rules; comment period open for new A&T policy

  • The Public Health Service has revised its financial conflict of interest reporting requirements for applicants and awardees for proposals and SBIR/STTR Phase II cooperative agreements.

NC-LSAMP annual research conference on minorities in STEM to be held Sept. 20-21

  • The North Carolina Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (NC-LSAMP) will hold its annual research conference September 20-21 at N.C. A&T.  LSAMP seeks to increase the quality and quantity of students successfully completing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) baccalaureate degree programs, and successfully matriculating into STEM graduate programs.

Students from N.C. A&T and Purdue collaborate on project for space station

  • Primarily undergraduate engineering students at both universities will design and build the shoebox-size experiment, develop the procedures for operation in space, train the astronauts, process the data, and write research papers describing the results.

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Lab safety: UCLA researcher’s case continues

Chemical & Engineering News logoFrom Chemical and Engineering News, dated Friday July 27:

“The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office today dropped felony charges against the University of California Regents as part of an agreement involving labor code violations relating to the 2008 death of a chemistry staff research assistant.

“Similar charges against UC Los Angeles chemistry professor Patrick Harran were not dropped. The case against Harran has been postponed until Sept. 5 while the judge reviews a motion filed by his attorney challenging the credibility of a state investigator.”

Random reviews of IRB protocols to begin

The Office of Research Compliance and Ethics has established a committee for random reviews of approved IRB studies to support quality assurance efforts for the protection of human subjects.

Review of human subjects research protocols approved by the IRB in 2010 will begin next week. Principal investigators will receive a letter from the Protocol Review and Education Program (PREP), notifying them that their study has been randomly selected for post-approval review. The letter will include details on how to schedule the review, the names of the committee member to contact, and what the review will involve.

PREP conducts not-for-cause reviews, therefore protocols are not selected on the basis of suspicion that the investigator is or is not in compliance with IRB regulatory standards. Results of the reviews are reported in aggregated format unless an issue requires a report to the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

Dr. Robin Liles serves as chair of the committee and can be reached at 336 285-4390 or by email.

Worth reading: Suit over fatal lab fire at UCLA

From one of the very informative blogs at Scientific American:

“Generally, scientists doing research that involves hazardous materials do what they can to find out how to mitigate the hazards. They learn appropriate ways of handling the materials, of disposing of them, of protecting themselves and others in case of accidents.

“But, knowing the right ways to deal with hazardous materials is not sufficient to mitigate the risks. Proper procedures need to be implemented. Otherwise, your knowledge about the risks of hazardous materials is mostly useful in explaining bad outcomes after they happen.”

Assessing the damage in Yankaskas case

The News & Observer wraps up the story of Dr. Bonnie Yankaskas of UNC-CH and the computer security breach that cost the epidemiologist her job and a significant amount of money.  It also put the future of her 15-year research project, the Carolina Mammography Registry, in doubt.

UNC-CH, Yankaskas reach settlement

UNC-CH has settled a case in which it was attempting to fire a faculty member over the the hacking of a cancer research database.  Dr. Bonnie Yankaskas has agreed to retire, and the university has agreed to restore her rank and salary, which were reduced in the wake of the hacking of her project’s database.  The UNC-CH campus newspaper reported this week that the settlement was announced last Friday.  In 2009, it was discovered that the personal information of some 180,000 patients and research subjects had been exposed when a hacker successfully attacked the database of the Carolina Mammography Registry. Yankaskas, as the PI on the project, was held responsible.  She contended that the security of her database wasn’t her responsibility.

Research controversy vs. football controversy: Comparing two high-profile cases in Chapel Hill

Scandal comes to Chapel Hill, and what happens?  Epidemiologist Bonnie Yankaskas gets punished.  Football coach Butch Davis gets a big hug from the chancellor.  How different are the two cases? The editor of The News & Observer gives his opinion.

UNC-CH Chancellor Holden Thorpe, in the "Carolina" jacket, and Butch Davis after the coachs scandal-ridden football team beat Duke last fall.

Vulnerability of research database results in controversial demotion of UNC-CH prof

Here’s a wake-up call for PIs who collect personal information about people participating in their research projects:

A cancer researcher at UNC-CH is being held responsible for a vulnerability in her project’s database that allowed a hacker to access 180,000 patient files.  Epidemiologist Bonnie Yankaskas has been demoted from professor to associate professor; her pay was cut almost in half.  But it could have been worse — the university initially wanted to fire her.

The case is going into mediation, so it’s unclear what the ultimate outcome will be for Yankaskas.  But for now, at least, the researcher is being held personally responsible for the security of her research data.   A group of faculty members at Chapel Hill and elsewhere have signed a petition supporting her.  Click here for details from The News & Observer.