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Sheila Garrity on safeguarding research integrity:
How did you come to be a research integrity officer (RIO)?
GARRITY: I came to Johns Hopkins and to Baltimore in 1991 with my husband, who was doing a postdoctoral fellowship. My first job at Johns Hopkins was working in the Registrar’s Office. That was a great place to start in that it provided a thorough introduction to the institutional structure. I left there to work as an administrator in neurology, where Richard Johnson served as chair. When he stepped down, I went with him to the Annals of Neurology, where he served as editor-in-chief and I as managing editor. I thought Baltimore was just a temporary move, but Johns Hopkins and Baltimore grew on me.
Then, I started working on my law degree and public health degree part time. Toward the end of my time in law school, my advisor asked, “So, what are you going to do with your degree? You know, Johns Hopkins is a great place to work.” And that’s when he told me about this opening in the Office of Policy Coordination. I started there almost 10 years ago as a “special assistant.” I had no idea what that meant. It sounded like the title for an operative in the CIA. My family in Montana was very impressed.
There were just a few of us in the office then. We all worked on misconduct issues, conflict of interest issues and whatever else came our way. Eventually, it became clear that we needed to separate our roles to be more efficient. So I became the one who took on misconduct issues and education in the responsible conduct of research.
Since many instances of misconduct involve published papers, do you think your experience at the Annals of Neurology helps in what you do now?
GARRITY: Oh, definitely. While I was there, we were faced with issues of misconduct, so I can see the journals’ perspective. As a journal, you don’t necessarily want to contact the academic institution, because the case might take forever to work its way through the bureaucracy and you might have a manuscript worth publishing on the line.
Now that I’m on the institutional side, I see the value of keeping the institution in the loop. I don’t think any journal’s editorial office has the means to do an investigation. It takes a lot of manpower, tools and time. And journals don’t have the access or authority to be able to gather evidence the way a research institution can.
I also understand the pressure that journals experience to speed up the review process and get things published quickly. When I started at the journal, we were still faxing and shipping manuscripts and reviews. The process was naturally slower. During my time there, we transitioned to an online review system, along with online publication of the journal. Now, everyone wants their work published yesterday, and journals are eager to publish exciting breakthroughs quickly.
You were instrumental in creating the Association of Research Integrity Officers (ARIO) last year. How will ARIO help its members?
GARRITY: Since RIOs have only been around and under the oversight of the federal Office of Research Integrity for 15 to 20 years, the position is still being defined. This leaves us vulnerable to the pressures and nuances of each case we handle. If we don’t develop professional best practices, someone else will. This group has already become a valuable network for RIOs to call each other with questions about difficult cases and share best practices.
For example, can an RIO request a retraction from a journal? The answer to that question shouldn’t depend on which RIO, researcher, institution and journal are involved. ARIO can help create guidelines for consistent, sensible communications between journals and RIOs.
What motivates you to come into the office each day? How do you keep from getting down?
GARRITY: It can be incredibly depressing to sit in a room with an investigation committee and try to uncover the truth. Balancing that are my encounters with the people who agree to serve on those committees and to give the research integrity lectures. They realize how important this work is for all of us at Johns Hopkins and in the scientific community.
I’ve been at Johns Hopkins so long, it’s like family. It’s fulfilling to work to protect the mission of such a great place.
What is the best part of your job?
GARRITY: Education is the most gratifying thing that I do. The model we use to teach the responsible conduct of research was developed under Chi Dang and is now a model for some of our peer institutions. The unique part of the model is the Dean’s Research Integrity Lecture series. The lectures aren’t research talks that the faculty have already put together and can pull off the shelf and quickly revise. They put a lot of work into them, and their dedication comes through in their delivery. They make it easy for me to encourage discussion afterward, which I love doing, because it’s so important that we set a really high standard and train our community to conduct research with integrity.
–Interviewed by Catherine Kolf