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Reporting Research

"Reporting research" relates to the communication of research results, whether through publication of peer-reviewed articles, abstracts, presentations at meetings, or some less conventional means. There are five issues pertinent to this topic that are dealt with in this section:

  • communicating preliminary research results,
  • making significant and complete contributions to the literature, rather than fragmenting work into less meaningful reports,
  • providing full and appropriate credit to those whose work substantially benefited the research in question,
  • avoiding plagiarism, which encompasses the theft of ideas, words, or other forms of communication, and
  • conveying significant methodological detail to permit subsequent replication of work by others

Case B1 deals with the question of when research findings may be considered "ripe" for presentation in a public setting. Results that are presented too early may not be confirmed by subsequent work, leading to misinformation or false conclusions. Research by others may then be erroneously influenced by building on incorrect assumptions. Thus, the case also raises the issue of how to retract or withdraw mistaken conclusions once presented publicly.

Often, a single project of research yields a number of interesting or important findings that can be published together in a single paper or broken up into separate reports. The concern over the latter practice relates to a cluttering of the literature with a greater number of papers of less significance. Thus, researchers must determine the point at which findings are significant enough and sufficiently developed for publication. Some scientists would argue that an inordinate emphasis is given to numbers of publications in decisions related to promotion or tenure, and thus they feel significant pressure to publish prolifically. These issues are dealt with in Case B2.

Researchers rarely work in isolation and, indeed, collaboration is essential in the scientific endeavor. Individuals contribute to the work of colleagues in diverse ways and significant contributions need to be recognized when writing up research for publication. Case B3, therefore, presents a scenario in which a number of individuals have made contributions both to the design and conduct of a research protocol, and to the paper in which the research results are presented. The protagonist must determine which contributions are important enough to merit recognition in his paper, and what form of recognition is most appropriate (by acknowledgment or authorship).

Although more widely recognized today as inappropriate than several years ago, gift or courtesy authorship -- according authorship status on any basis other than one's actual contribution to the research -- continues to be a problem. Thus, Case B4 deals with this matter, drawing out through the questions additional issues related to the rights and responsibilities of coauthors.

The theft of ideas and words -- plagiarism -- is not nearly as straightforward as some might believe. Of course, some cases involve copying long passages of text verbatim and are self- evident. In other instances, however, text can be modified in sophisticated ways to render it not immediately recognizable from the source material. Even when one set of text is clearly derivative of another, it may not be clear which of the disputed authors had primacy in the formulation of the ideas or text, or proprietary rights to the final product. Repeated publication of a single set of results, failing to cite properly one's own previous work, and reanalysis of prior data are important facets of this issue that may not be widely recognized as inappropriate practices. Also, failure to attribute the contributions of colleagues or collaborators, whether deliberate or not, may be viewed as a form of plagiarism. All of these issues are examined in Cases B5 through B8.

Finally, the significance of scientific observations is predicated on their reproducibility. Thus, investigators have a responsibility to convey as completely as possible all-important information concerning how their research projects were carried out. Omitting an arcane, yet critical, detail can impede the ability of other scientists to replicate the reported work, and delay the progress of science. Instructors may wish to develop their own case on this topic.

The suggested readings in this section include various guidelines that define the responsibilities of authorship, as well as works that alert the reader to the broad implications of plagiarism.

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