Ethics Case Study: Karen M. D’Souza

Thanks to evolution, we humans have developed an advanced cognitive ability that allows us to process both tangible and intangible information that helps us make decisions. Tangible information (e.g. proven scientific facts or theories) provides us with a variety of solutions to to the decisions we face every day.  However, intangible information such as our emotions or ethical code ultimately guide us in selecting a final choice or action. Ethics (i.e. moral principles that govern one’s behavior) are crucial in making decisions that yield philosophically sound outcomes — the decisions we make need to be beneficial and not inflict unnecessary harm on ourselves, our fellow man, the Earth, etc. When there is a failure or refusal to employ ethics in decision making, we bypass a vital step in preventing deleterious outcomes. Specifically in scientific fields, neglecting to conduct research ethically can lead to a variety of ill-fated consequences.

In 2016, the Office of Research Integrity’s (ORI) Department of Health and Human Services found Dr. Karen M. D’Souza, a former Research Professional Associate in the Department of Surgery at the University of Chicago, engaged in research misconduct in research supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NLBHI) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The ORI discovered that falsified and/or fabricated data were included in one NIH grant (R01 HL107949-01) two publications (J Biol Chem. 285(18):13748-60, 2010 Apr 30; J Biol Chem. 286(17):15507-16, 2011 Apr 29), two posters (Gordon Conference 2006 poster: “Regulation of Myocardial β-Adrenergic Receptor Signaling By Protein Kinase C”; Huggins 2010 poster: Gαq-mediated activation of GRK2 by mechanical stretch in cardiac myocytes; the role of protein kinase C”), and one presentation (Cardiac Research Day 2009 presentation: “Regulation of G protein-coupled receptor signaling by mechanical stretch in cardiac myocytes”). It was found that Dr. D’Souza reused and falsely relabeled and/or falsely spliced Western blot images, falsified the related densitometry measurements based on the falsified Western blots, and falsified and/or fabricated data for experiments that were not performed or from unrelated experiments.

When Dr. D’Souza made the decision to falsify and/or fabricate her data, she exhibited a blatant disregard for conducting research. What motivates a researcher to make an unethical decision such as Dr. D’Souza did? Often times it is the ever-present pressure for researchers to “publish or perish” — the notion that the success of a researcher’s career directly increases with the number of research manuscripts they have published in peer-reviewed journals.  Time is another factor that can sway a researcher to abandon their ethical code. The grants that fund the majority of present-day research always include a time line for when all related experiments and results must be obtained. If the researchers fail to complete experimentation by the deadline set forth in the grant proposal, it is highly unlikely the funding organization will select to fund any of their future research endeavors.  Similarly, some funding organizations desire for the research they are funding to provide specific results or conclusions that support the organization’s personal agenda. Researchers will falsify and/or fabricate data in the hope that, by pleasing the funding organization, the organization will grant them more funding for future research.

In Dr. D’Souza’s case, we may never know what precisely motivated her to report unethical research. However, we can speculate the potential outcomes that may result from her misconduct. Since she was performing medical research on coronary function, we can assume that her published “findings” may be utilized to clinically treat patients with heart-related issues. Because she falsified and/or fabricated her findings, there is no way to know if they are statistically significant. If used to treat patients in clinical trials, her unethical results could prove ineffective, or worse, fatal. Additionally, Dr. D’Souza’s gross unethical conduct will certainly yield a multitude of undesirable consequences. For instance, she has already received several administrative actions (i.e. punishments) directly related to her research misconduct, which she has voluntarily agreed to accept. The ultimate and, in my opinion, least favorable consequence of Dr. D’Souza’s misconduct is that she has forever tarnished her integrity as a researcher, surgeon, academic, and human being.

My final thought on the case of Dr. D’Souza is this: take the time to seriously evaluate the consequences of your actions. There is no personal or professional triumph worth sacrificing your integrity for.

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