Beacons of integrity

RCUK is working to build a fair and robust system that will minimise research misconduct, says Glyn Davies

October 2, 2008

As any dentist knows, even one like Jon Subo - who was held up as a morality tale for research misconduct in Times Higher Education ("Cleaning up the Act", 28 August) - prevention is better than cure. But is the UK research community really in need of some serious root-canal treatment, or will a scale and polish do the trick?

Research Councils UK (RCUK) has been working towards safeguarding good practice for a decade, and it is running a public consultation on research conduct. The consultation complements the work of the UK Research Integrity Office (UKRIO), but covers a wider range of issues.

While recognising a strong prevailing culture of research integrity and good practice across UK universities and research organisations, RCUK is seeking views on any perceived shortfalls.

Surveys of our funded research organisations and a conference organised this year at Keele University - jointly with UKRIO, Universities UK and other stakeholders - have identified three significant issues.

The first is clarity - a common principle that all researchers across all research disciplines should accept as good research conduct.

The second is the need to focus on the positive, and on management structures that promote and supervise good research conduct, rather than relying on whistle-blowers, who in airing their concerns sometimes risk their own careers.

The third is the absence of any national system of recording researchers that have fallen short of the expected standards. Cases are dealt with - properly in my view - in universities or research organisations. But how this information is recorded and who should be informed is not clear. Should, for example, another employer be informed when a case has been upheld against a researcher when he or she seeks to move? Deciding what should happen when a researcher quits during an investigation is an even more fraught issue.

It is difficult to know how the UK fares in comparison with other countries. We need to ensure that any problems are not simply brushed under the carpet.

There is also criticism that the criteria for assessing misconduct are too narrow. RCUK wants to address these concerns and develop a clear set of guidelines on avoiding misconduct in the following areas: fabrication, falsification, misrepresentation, plagiarism, management and preservation of data and primary materials, and breach of duty of care.

The academic community is fully capable of self-regulation, although coherent and standardised structures enabling this to occur transparently need strengthening.

Students and staff should feel confident that there are systems in place to identify weaknesses and correct them, without fear of recrimination.

Establishing an overriding culture of best practice, where issues such as minor plagiarism and misrepresentation are treated appropriately, has widespread influence on good conduct throughout a research organisation.

If good management is the norm, then it will be clear to all researchers early in their careers what is and isn't acceptable, which should result in fewer serious cases of misconduct.

RCUK's focus is on training and development, taking a positive and proactive approach. Clear mentoring and stewardship within organisations are suggested, as well as a responsible attitude from publishers and research bodies in providing guidance on the standards that should be applied.

We also suggest that regular reports on the standards of good conduct and ethics should be normal activity inside research organisations.

There will always be those who seek to manipulate research for their own ends, but it is not correct to assume that this is endemic nor to deny that more work is needed to ensure that misconduct is minimised.

RCUK, in working towards a fairer, more robust and more open system, is helping to pave the way for the UK to maintain its position as a beacon, not only for its research, but also for its integrity.

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