Bioethics Blogs

First, Do Some Harm, Part IV: Fake Submission to Fake Conference Yields Fake Charge of Misconduct

Professor Jim Vander Putten, who spent six years as chair of the University of Arkansas Little Rock (UALR) IRB, is now charged with violating university rules by conducting research without that board’s approval. The case highlights several problems with the current system, most notably its failure to provide standards for studies designed to expose misbehavior.

[Peter Schmidt, “A Scholar’s Sting of Education Conferences Stirs a Hornet’s Nest,” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 14, 2016, paywalled.]

Scamming the scammers

The Chronicle gives the basic facts of the study:

Jim Vander Putten suspected that some education conferences accepted any study pitched by someone willing to pay a registration fee. He worried that the gatherings enabled scholars to pad their publishing records while tainting research in the field.

To test his hypothesis, he sent fake research-paper summaries larded with unforgivable methodological errors to the organizers of 15 conferences he believed to have lax standards. All responded by offering to let him present his findings and to publish his papers as part of their proceedings.

Before proceeding with the study, Vander Putten spent 18 months trying to get approval from the UALR IRB, but it eventually ruled that, in the Chronicle’s words, the proposal “had failed to assuage its concerns over issues such as potential harm to reviewers, whom conference organizers or people willing to investigate the review process might be able to identify.” Rather than accept defeat, he turned to Solutions IRB, a commercial firm in Little Rock, which approved the study.

Issue 1: Can researchers choose their IRBs?

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.