Grounds for Ambiguity: Justifiable Bases for Engaging in Questionable Research Practices

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Philosophy and Religion; Psychology


The current study sought to determine research scientists’ sensitivity to various justifications for engaging in behaviors typically considered to be questionable research practices (QRPs) by asking them to evaluate the appropriateness and ethical defensibility of each. Utilizing a within-subjects design, 107 National Institutes of Health principal investigators responded to an invitation to complete an online survey in which they read a series of research behaviors determined, in prior research, to either be ambiguous or unambiguous in their ethical defensibility. Additionally, each behavior was paired with either an ostensibly sound or unsound reason for the behavior. Consistent with hypotheses, the results indicated that scientists perceived QRPs as more appropriate and defensible when paired with a justifiable motive relative to when paired with a clearly unethical motive, particularly for QRPs that are more ambiguous in their ethicality. In fact, ambiguous QRPs were perceived as categorically defensible when given a justifiable motive. This suggests scientists are sensitive to contextual factors related to QRPs’ appropriateness, which could inform how institutions develop appropriate training modules for research integrity.

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Science and Engineering Ethics