Unit 05: Duke University Has Its Own Unethical Woes

In a recent news article, it was announced that the prestigious Duke University will have to pay the U.S. government $112.5 million to settle accusations that its researchers “submitted applications and reports containing falsified data to win more than two dozen grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency.” (Kaplan, 2019) The investigation was initiated by a whistle-blower, Joseph Thomas – a former Duke lab analyst, who “filed a lawsuit under the False Claims Act claiming that Erin Potts-Kant, another researcher, had fabricated data over a period from 2006 through 2018, which was linked to as much as $200 million in federal research grants related to the study of the lung function of mice.” (Kaplan, 2019) Apparently, Duke originally became aware of Potts-Kant’s misconduct in 2013 “after she was fired for embezzling money from the university.” (Kaplan, 2019) According to the lawsuit, “Potts-Kant engaged in systematic and near-universal research fraud, including, in some cases, making up data outright in lieu of actually performing experiments. The suit also accused those who supervised Potts-Kant of ignoring signs of possible fraud or misconduct.” (Chappell, 2019)

Duke University president, Vincent E. Price, announced in a statement that “this case demonstrates the devastating impact of research fraud and reinforces the need for all of us to have a focused commitment on promoting research integrity and accountability.” (Kaplan, 2019) Price added that, “when individuals fail to uphold those standards, and those who are aware of possible wrongdoing fail to report it, as happened in this case, we must accept responsibility, acknowledge that our processes for identifying and preventing misconduct did not work, and take steps to improve.” (Chappell, 2019) According to reports, in recent years, the university has taken steps to “promote ethics in research, including the creation of an office for scientific integrity, requiring mandatory research integrity training for all medical school faculty, and keeping all research data records to promote values and a culture of excellence and accountability.” (Kaplan, 2019)

When I consider this situation and Erin Potts-Kant’s motivation, influences and beliefs, I am reminded of how our individual differences may contribute to and influence how decisions are made, including the things that we may sacrifice or prioritize. When the backlash of an unethical decision is reported, such as in the case of Potts-Kant, public opinion generally begins to shame the poor decision maker as if the decision was completely inconceivable. While I agree that her decision was unethical, I also understand that when confronted with a critical event and under tense circumstances (opportunity, pressures, competition), decisions like these can be made more often that are reported. Perhaps Potts-Kant was experiencing a crisis and was under pressure to keep her department afloat and without funding would lose out on years of research, or Potts-Kant’s crisis was the pressure from her superiors to provide viable data to substantiate her role within the university. “A crisis is defined as a critical event or point of decision which, if not handled in an appropriate and timely manner (or if not handled at all), may turn into a disaster or catastrophe. Critical events, which are aspects of crises, draw out both our instrumental and terminal values to determine how we will react. In crises, leaders need to balance the values of themselves, their followers, and the larger organization and/or society.” (PSU, 2019)

Another aspect of a crisis that correlates to ethics is the appropriateness of the decision, indicating that “there is a better or worse solution whereas teleology/consequentialism holds that the end results justify the actions and deontology holds that the process justifies the end results.” (PSU, 2019) In lieu of receiving a statement from Potts-Kant’s regarding why she would falsify research data, and contradict every ethics course, guideline and principle that she agreed to throughout her career, I will take a leap and assume that somewhere in her subconscious, she genuinely felt she was doing someone (either herself, her department, the university or society) some greater good. I struggle with believing that her intentions were to maliciously falsify data; instead I believe that as a result of teleology/consequentialism, the end results justify one’s actions, Potts-Kant hoped to achieve results to continue her research and falsified data to achieve those results. Clearly her perspectives and decisions did not align with the university and as leaders, this case is a warning sign to ensure that the pressure that we or our teams are under do not circumvent the organization’s ethical foundation and beliefs.

Another interesting aspect of this report, which I felt was somewhat glossed over, were brief comments regarding the lawsuit, which also accused those who supervised Potts-Kant of ignoring signs of possible fraud or misconduct. The President of Duke University also spoke of individuals who may have been aware of possible wrongdoing but failed to report it. In an educational institution, especially one as prestigious as Duke University, how does this happen? According to its website, Duke University is “awarded nearly $500 million per year from government agencies, consistently placing the university in the top ten among U.S. research universities.” (Duke University, n.d.) The website also cearly requests that if “any Duke student, faculty, or staff who has reason to believe that a researcher has committed misconduct in research should report the matter, in writing, to the researcher’s department or section chairperson, division chief, dean, or the appropriate Misconduct Review Officer (MRO).” (Duke University, n.d.)

Given the grand-standing announcement reporting how much money the university receives – making them among the top 10 – I wonder if the institution realizes how this may instigate pressure amongst its researchers and research departments to maintain these accolades. When I consider how Potts-Kant and her supervisors could proceed with these unethical decisions, I’m reminded of group-think, “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action and avoid upsetting the status quo, even if maintaining the status quo is the wrong decision.” (PSU, 2019) Potts-Kant’s superiors were aware of her wrongdoing and conceivably, as a small group, focusing on how much funding the university could receive, the number of research papers that could be published and their increased notoriety, the department may have become overly cohesive and fell into groupthink, neglecting to consider other viable options to achieve the desired the end result and sacrificing the ethical climate of the organization.

Regardless of the underlying reason for Potts-Kant’s unethical decisions, what is clear is that situational factors such as the organizational climate, ethical climate, group dynamics and how to respond in a crisis certainly play a role in ethical decision making. Each of these affect our personality, motives, intelligence, beliefs and ethics, and subsequently, what we view as right and wrong or acceptable versus unacceptable behavior.

Chappell, B. 2019, March 25. Duke Whistleblower Gets More Than $33 Million In Research Fraud Settlement. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2019/03/25/706604033/duke-whistleblower-gets-more-than-33-million-in-research-fraud-settlement

Duke University. (n.d). Retrieved from https://research.duke.edu/funding

Kaplan. S. 2019, March 25. Duke University to Pay $112.5 Million to Settle Claims of Research Misconduct. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/25/science/duke-settlement-research.html

PSU. (2019). PSY 833: L08 Individual Differences [Lecture Notes]. Retrieved from

PSU. (2019). PSY 833: L09 Personality [Lecture Notes]. Retrieved from

PSU. (2019). PSY 833: L10 Crises [Lecture Notes]. Retrieved from

PSU. (2019). PSY 833: L11 Small Groups [Lecture Notes]. Retrieved from

PSU. (2019). PSY 833: L13 Ethical Climate [Lecture Notes]. Retrieved from

One Comment

  1. Jason Vandermate April 20, 2019 at 5:07 PM #

    I found reading your blog it was an interesting read and brings up some very important aspects of why individuals but mainly employees make unethical decisions. With this situation, Mrs. Potts-Kant decided to falsify data and information in order for Duke University to gain more research grants for her department. For universities, federal grants are not only very competitive between the universities but very strongly sought after to further the research in the school and add to the preciousness of the school by possible attention that may come from the research. For this reason, is why employees in the university may act in an unethical manner.

    I agreed with your analysis that Mrs. Potts-Kant may have not acted unethically fully with the intent in doing something wrong as in her mind she may have thought it was okay as it as for the good of the university and everyone in the university would benefit in some way. Individuals with strong attachments to and identification with their employer may also be the most likely to engage in unethical pro-organization behaviors, suggesting that employees may do “bad things, for good reasons”. Thus identify a potentially unintended negative consequence of a positive social exchange and organizational identification (Umphress, E, Gingham, J 2011). Mrs. Potts-Kant felt her own personal crisis that if she did not do something to make her data seems more impressive than other universities they would lose the grant funding and the department would be affected by lack of funding and innovation without the funds and this can only add to bad decisions.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Elizabeth Unphress, John Bingham, (2011), When employees do bad things for good reasons, examining unethical pro-organizational behaviors. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/20868883?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

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