Concordat to keep research on the straight and narrow

Agreement to prevent misconduct 'will reassure public and international partners'. Paul Jump writes

July 12, 2012

A document setting out the responsibilities of different players to uphold research integrity will reassure both the public and the UK's international partners, David Willetts, the universities and science minister, has said.

The Concordat to Support Research Integrity, drawn up by Universities UK and the UK's major research funders, sets out what is expected of researchers, institutions and funding bodies.

The final version of the document, published on 11 July, is similar to a draft published for consultation earlier this year. However, under pressure from universities, two major requirements for research organisations have been downgraded to recommendations.

These are that research institutions should appoint a senior member of staff to oversee research integrity and that they should provide a named point of contact to act as a "confidential liaison for whistleblowers".

But the final document makes clear that universities will have to make public the annual reports on research integrity that they will be required to produce for their governing boards. These will summarise what the institution has done to strengthen research integrity, provide "assurance" that processes for dealing with misconduct allegations are "transparent, robust and fair", and present headline figures on the number of misconduct cases reported and investigated that year.

The signatories to the concordat will also attend an annual forum to "assess progress and to draw out lessons for the sector as a whole", as well as producing an "annual narrative statement" on the state of research integrity in the UK.

In his foreword to the document, Mr Willetts says he does not doubt that UK researchers take their responsibilities on integrity seriously, but they must not be "complacent". We must, he continues, be "sure that we can show - both to the public and to our international partners and competitors - how the highest possible standards of integrity are maintained".

Nicola Perrin, senior policy adviser at the Wellcome Trust, said the concordat strives to acknowledge existing oversight mechanisms and to allay confusion about the concordat's role.

Among the organisations mentioned is the UK Research Integrity Office, an advice body whose financial backing was ended by research funders in 2010 but which has carried on as a subscription organisation.

Ms Perrin also rejected the assertion that universities could not be trusted to regulate themselves, or that misconduct was promoted by current research funding and career advancement criteria. She reiterated that there was "no appetite" among the signatories for additional regulation.

"But if the funders are saying: 'We want a culture of research integrity and we will only fund you if you are following best practice', that is a good starting point to try to change the culture," she said.

"The fact some responses thought the concordat was going too far and others not far enough hopefully suggests we have got it about right."

Rick Rylance, chairman of Research Councils UK, said it was important that the UK would now have an agreed "point of reference" on research integrity that could also feed into international discussions.

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