Leader: Box ticked, but job not yet done

The UK's new research integrity concordat is an insufficient bulwark against the high risk of a future storm over misconduct

July 12, 2012

The business school dean sacked for plagiarism; the top neuroscientist found guilty of deception when he failed to mention the untimely cull of his sheep during an experiment on their long-term memory; the university osteoporosis expert who signed an untrue declaration about the extent of his access to data on a drug he was researching - just three memorable examples of research misconduct uncovered by Times Higher Education in recent years.

Each important case came to light not through an effective regulatory regime but through the principled bravery of individual whistleblowers and the dogged work of journalists.

The true extent of research misconduct can never be known. A famous 2009 meta-analysis of survey data by Daniele Fanelli found that while only 2 per cent of scientists admitted to having fabricated, falsified or modified data or results, almost 34 per cent admitted other questionable research practices. The British Medical Journal reported last year that one in eight scientists and doctors in the UK had witnessed at least some form of research fraud.

So is it sheer luck that the UK has not seen a research scandal on anything like the scale that has caused so much national humiliation elsewhere, including the Republic of Korea, Germany, Japan and Australia? Maybe.

University of Sussex vice-chancellor Michael Farthing - who must be applauded for his tireless work on research integrity for well over a decade - writes in our cover feature this week: "It is dangerously complacent to believe that we could not be touched in the future".

The UK is undoubtedly one of the world's leading research powerhouses. World-class research - and maintaining a strong global reputation for world-class research - is vital to the future of our economy. There is far too much at stake for complacency. And that is why publication this week of a new Concordat to Support Research Integrity - backed by an impressive array of authorities including the government, the research councils and the Higher Education Funding Council for England - must be seen as a missed opportunity.

Of course, the document should be welcomed: it lays down important principles and sets clear guidelines for the proper investigation of misconduct.

But it is not enough.

There is huge pressure on today's academics and the publish-or-perish culture creates far too many incentives for researchers to cheat - from cutting corners to fulfil a management-imposed publications quota, to fabricating results to win a career-changing publication in a top journal.

In this ruthless climate, a portentous document - which no matter how sensible and carefully crafted is likely to languish unread in the in-boxes of most academics - is not much use.

Indeed, there is a danger that - despite a commitment to annual review - the new concordat may allow the authorities, after years of talks, to believe that the box marked "research integrity" is now ticked. We must not shut down further discussion of the merits of an independent investigative regime, and perhaps more importantly, we must not hold back from a holistic, warts-and-all examination of the UK's hothouse research culture and how current policies and practices may be nurturing an environment ripe for misconduct.

phil.baty@tsleducation.com.

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