U.S. Federal Policy on Research Misconduct

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I. Research[2] Misconduct Defined

Research misconduct is defined as fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results.

  • Fabrication is making up data or results and recording or reporting them.
  • Falsification is manipulating research materials, equipment, or processes, or changing or omitting data or results such that the research is not accurately represented in the research record.3
  • Plagiarism is the appropriation of another person's ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit.
  • Research misconduct does not include honest error or differences of opinion.

II. Findings of Research Misconduct

A finding of research misconduct requires that:

  • There be a significant departure from accepted practices of the relevant research community; and
  • The misconduct be committed intentionally, or knowingly, or recklessly; and
  • The allegation be proven by a preponderance of evidence.

III. Responsibilities of Federal Agencies and Research Institutions4

Agencies and research institutions are partners who share responsibility for the research process. Federal agencies have ultimate oversight authority for Federally funded research, but research institutions bear primary responsibility for prevention and detection of research misconduct and for the inquiry, investigation, and adjudication of research misconduct alleged to have occurred in association with their own institution.

  • Agency Policies and Procedures. Agency policies and procedures with regard to intramural as well as extramural programs must conform to the policy described in this document.
  • Agency Referral to Research Institution. In most cases, agencies will rely on the researcher's home institution to make the initial response to allegations of research misconduct. Agencies will usually refer allegations of research misconduct made directly to them to the appropriate research institution. However, at any time, the Federal agency may proceed with its own inquiry or investigation. Circumstances in which agencies may elect not to defer to the research institution include, but are not limited to, the following: the agency determines the institution is not prepared to handle the allegation in a manner consistent with this policy; agency involvement is needed to protect the public interest, including public health and safety; the allegation involves an entity of sufficiently small size (or an individual) that it cannot reasonably conduct the investigation itself.
  • Multiple Phases of the Response to an Allegation of Research Misconduct. A response to an allegation of research misconduct will usually consist of several phases, including: (1) an inquiry -- the assessment of whether the allegation has substance and if an investigation is warranted; (2) an investigation -- the formal development of a factual record, and the examination of that record leading to dismissal of the case or to a recommendation for a finding of research misconduct or other appropriate remedies; (3) adjudication -- during which recommendations are reviewed and appropriate corrective actions determined.
  • Agency Follow-up to Institutional Action. After reviewing the record of the investigation, the institution?s recommendations to the institution's adjudicating official, and any corrective actions taken by the research institution, the agency will take additional oversight or investigative steps if necessary. Upon completion of its review, the agency will take appropriate administrative action in accordance with applicable laws, regulations, or policies. When the agency has made a final determination, it will notify the subject of the allegation of the outcome and inform the institution regarding its disposition of the case. The agency finding of research misconduct and agency administrative actions can be appealed pursuant to the agency's applicable procedures.
  • Separation of Phases. Adjudication is separated organizationally from inquiry and investigation. Likewise, appeals are separated organizationally from inquiry and investigation.
  • Institutional Notification of the Agency. Research institutions will notify the funding agency (or agencies in some cases) of an allegation of research misconduct if (1) the allegation involves Federally funded research (or an application for Federal funding) and meets the Federal definition of research misconduct given above, and (2) if the institution's inquiry into the allegation determines there is sufficient evidence to proceed to an investigation. When an investigation is complete, the research institution will forward to the agency a copy of the evidentiary record, the investigative report, recommendations made to the institution?s adjudicating official, and the subject's written response to the recommendations (if any). When a research institution completes the adjudication phase, it will forward the adjudicating official's decision and notify the agency of any corrective actions taken or planned.
  • Other Reasons to Notify the Agency. At any time during an inquiry or investigation, the institution will immediately notify the Federal agency if public health or safety is at risk; if agency resources or interests are threatened; if research activities should be suspended; if there is reasonable indication of possible violations of civil or criminal law; if Federal action is required to protect the interests of those involved in the investigation; if the research institution believes the inquiry or investigation may be made public prematurely so that appropriate steps can be taken to safeguard evidence and protect the rights of those involved; or if the research community or public should be informed.
  • When More Than One Agency is Involved. A lead agency should be designated to coordinate responses to allegations of research misconduct when more than one agency is involved in funding activities relevant to the allegation. Each agency may implement administrative actions in accordance with applicable laws, regulations, policies, or contractual procedures.

IV. Guidelines for Fair and Timely Procedures

The following guidelines are provided to assist agencies and research institutions in developing fair and timely procedures for responding to allegations of research misconduct. They are designed to provide safeguards for subjects of allegations as well as for informants. Fair and timely procedures include the following:

  • Safeguards for Informants. Safeguards for informants give individuals the confidence that they can bring allegations of research misconduct made in good faith to the attention of appropriate authorities or serve as informants to an inquiry or an investigation without suffering retribution. Safeguards include protection against retaliation for informants who make good faith allegations, fair and objective procedures for the examination and resolution of allegations of research misconduct, and diligence in protecting the positions and reputations of those persons who make allegations of research misconduct in good faith.
  • Safeguards for Subjects of Allegations. Safeguards for subjects give individuals the confidence that their rights are protected and that the mere filing of an allegation of research misconduct against them will not bring their research to a halt or be the basis for other disciplinary or adverse action absent other compelling reasons. Other safeguards include timely written notification of subjects regarding substantive allegations made against them; a description of all such allegations; reasonable access to the data and other evidence supporting the allegations; and the opportunity to respond to allegations, the supporting evidence and the proposed findings of research misconduct (if any).
  • Objectivity and Expertise. The selection of individuals to review allegations and conduct investigations who have appropriate expertise and have no unresolved conflicts of interests help to ensure fairness throughout all phases of the process.
  • Timeliness. Reasonable time limits for the conduct of the inquiry, investigation, adjudication, and appeal phases (if any), with allowances for extensions where appropriate, provide confidence that the process will be well managed.
  • Confidentiality During the Inquiry, Investigation, and Decision-Making Processes. To the extent possible consistent with a fair and thorough investigation and as allowed by law, knowledge about the identity of subjects and informants is limited to those who need to know. Records maintained by the agency during the course of responding to an allegation of research misconduct are exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act to the extent permitted by law and regulation.

V. Agency Administrative Actions

  • Seriousness of the Misconduct. In deciding what administrative actions are appropriate, the agency should consider the seriousness of the misconduct, including, but not limited to, the degree to which the misconduct was knowing, intentional, or reckless; was an isolated event or part of a pattern; or had significant impact on the research record, research subjects, other researchers, institutions, or the public welfare.
  • Possible Administrative Actions. Administrative actions available include, but are not limited to, appropriate steps to correct the research record; letters of reprimand; the imposition of special certification or assurance requirements to ensure compliance with applicable regulations or terms of an award; suspension or termination of an active award; or suspension and debarment in accordance with applicable government-wide rules on suspension and debarment. In the event of suspension or debarment, the information is made publicly available through the List of Parties Excluded from Federal Procurement and Nonprocurement Programs maintained by the U.S. General Services Administration. With respect to administrative actions imposed upon government employees, the agencies must comply with all relevant federal personnel policies and laws.
  • In Case of Criminal or Civil Fraud Violations. If the funding agency believes that criminal or civil fraud violations may have occurred, the agency shall promptly refer the matter to the Department of Justice, the Inspector General for the agency, or other appropriate investigative body.

VI. Roles of Other Organizations

This Federal policy does not limit the authority of research institutions, or other entities, to promulgate additional research misconduct policies or guidelines or more specific ethical guidance.

[1] No rights, privileges, benefits or obligations are created or abridged by issuance of this policy alone. The creation or abridgment of rights, privileges, benefits or obligations, if any, shall occur only upon implementation of this policy by the Federal agencies.

[2] Research, as used herein, includes all basic, applied, and demonstration research in all fields of science, engineering, and mathematics. This includes, but is not limited to, research in economics, education, linguistics, medicine, psychology, social sciences, statistics, and research involving human subjects or animals.

[3]The research record is the record of data or results that embody the facts resulting from scientific inquiry, and includes, but is not limited to, research proposals, laboratory records, both physical and electronic, progress reports, abstracts, theses, oral presentations, internal reports, and journal articles.

[4] The term "research institutions" is defined to include all organizations using Federal funds for research, including, for example, colleges and universities, intramural Federal research laboratories, Federally funded research and development centers, national user facilities, industrial laboratories, or other research institutes. Independent researchers and small research institutions are covered by this policy.