Commentary: University of Utah needs an independent inspector to investigate allegations of misconduct

Office of Inspector General must keep scientific research honest if we are to trust it.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The University of Utah campus, August 27, 2020.

Now more than ever, Americans are asked to trust the science and scientists; however, if research misconduct goes unchecked at elite research institutions it will severely erode public trust in the science and scientists. That is why we are calling for the establishment of an independent Office of Inspector General (OIG) at the University of Utah with the authority to receive and independently investigate allegations of research misconduct, to ensure that Utah and federal government policies and laws are followed, and to protect the personal identifying and other sensitive information of Utahns.

The National Institute of Health defines research misconduct as “fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research or in reporting the results. One study has suggested that 72% of scientists report questionable research practices in the behavior of their colleagues. Research scientists and the institutions they work for are frequently faced with potential conflicts of interest that may bias the initiation of investigations or findings of misconduct. Existing personal or professional relationships, researchers’ and institutions’ perspectives, funders’ expectations, peers’ biases, competition for funding, and individual career aspirations including tenure may all be factors in research misconduct.

One of us, Dr. Zimmerman, a former manager at the Utah Department of Health (UDOH) and researcher at the University of Utah (University) learned firsthand how difficult, if not impossible, it is to obtain an independent investigation into research misconduct involving the University and the UDOH. Zimmerman’s complaints not only involved plagiarism, data fabrication and omission, but concerns about the unethical and potentially illegal sharing of hundreds of thousands of identifiable children’s birth certificate records, medical assessments, and education records with unauthorized researchers.

Zimmerman sought help through normal and customary channels from top University and UDOH administrators. Despite Utah whistleblower protection laws and rigorous University research misconduct policies preventing retaliation, Zimmerman was fired. Since then, Zimmerman has taken her case to both federal and state courts and has been awarded roughly one million dollars in damages. Zimmerman, however, is still trying to get an independent investigation of her allegations of fraud.

In a separate but related story, Utah parents are raising concerns about a mandatory form that they are required to complete before they can acquire their newborn’s birth certificate. The form includes detailed personal information unrelated to the birth certificate. The UDOH acknowledges that, once collected, it shares “minimal information” from these forms with researchers without parental consent or knowledge.

When University researchers use Utahns’ personal information obtained from the UDOH and other sources without first obtaining the consent of those individuals, engage in unprofessional practices including plagiarism, use corrupted data sets, forge documents, and/or silence and abuse whistleblowers, this results in the public losing trust in the University and in science. To protect the University’s reputation and to restore the integrity of science, the legislature should require the University to establish a fully independent Office of Inspector General (OIG). The OIG would be responsible for, but not limited to, 1) Investigating allegations of waste, research fraud, and abuse (including the abuse of whistleblowers; 2) Determining if a criminal act may be involved, and if so, turn the case over to the appropriate law enforcement agency; 3) Issuing public reports and 4) Ensuring that OIG findings are fully implemented.

Failure to establish an OIG at the University of Utah will ensure that research misconduct continues to go unchecked. Whistleblowers will be reluctant to come forward for fear of retaliation. Taxpayer dollars will continue to be wasted defending those involved in the misconduct and the public’s trust in the University, its science and its scientists will be seriously compromised.

Judith Pinborough-Zimmerman, Ph.D., was an assistant research professor at the University of Utah from 2005-2013 and program manager and speech pathologist at the Utah Department of Health from 1978-2005.

Ronald Mortensen, Ph.D. has written extensively on privacy and collaborated with legislators to pass bills that give citizens the right to control their own information.