Academic fraud can do great damage to reputations, but are universities doing enough to tackle it, asks Phil Baty
What drives an academic to research fraud? That's "the thousand-dollar question", says Michael Farthing, the man who has perhaps done most in the UK over the past decade to bring the vexed issue into the open.
"There are pressures. There's the next grant, the publications, the research assessment exercise, the next job. All those things are dependent on one's research output," said Professor Farthing, principal of St George's Hospital Medical School and a founder of the recently created UK Research Integrity Office (UKRIO).
"Some people are deluded by their own ideas. They find an answer; it is the one they want and the one they believe in. So they say to themselves, 'Why should I spend another year proving this? Why not speed the whole process up a bit and do a bit of research on the desktop?'"
Of course, there is also a less prosaic answer. "There are dishonest people in all walks of life. It is unreasonable to expect that some of those are not going to creep in to research."
Whatever the reasons behind it, the implications of misconduct reached beyond UK higher education to the wider economy and society, Professor Farthing said.
Aside from the potentially life-threatening consequences of fraud in biomedicine and in clinical research, Professor Farthing said: "If we lost the fundamental trust we place in researchers... our national reputation would decline because people could not trust the work that came out of this country. That has a very, very serious impact not just on our research culture but ultimately on UK plc."
For Professor Farthing and for Universities UK, The Times Higher' s figures on research misconduct suggest a welcome development - that the issue is finally being taken seriously by a sector that was previously complacent.
"There are no winners in this game," Professor Farthing said. "Everyone is a loser when you open a misconduct case, but I believe that (universities) are now biting the bullet and tackling it."
Professor Farthing was reluctant to be drawn on the implications of The Times Higher' s finding that the 73 cases that were investigated were concentrated in 42 institutions.
More than 60 institutions had held no investigations into any allegations. These included some of the most research-intensive universities, including the London School of Economics and Nottingham University (both Russell Group members) and the University of East Anglia and Exeter, Surrey and Essex universities (1994 Group members).
This may reflect a genuine lack of unethical behaviour in these institutions, but there are fears that staff at some places are reluctant to go through the sometimes traumatic whistleblowing process.
That suggestion was dismissed by a UEA spokesman. "We have a rigorous procedure that ensures confidentiality and impartiality. Our procedures are based on good practice and we have no reason to believe that there is any lack of confidence in them.
"To suggest otherwise seriously underestimates the commitment of our colleagues to ethical conduct and the academic and professional values that are embedded in the daily life of the university."
But one academic who recently made anonymous allegations about his manager outside the formal complaints procedure said: "No one in their right mind would want to go through the trauma of making formal allegations to their institutions.
"I would not trust a university to handle it properly. But even if you assume that the procedures are fair, you cannot really win: whatever happens, you will be known as a troublemaker and your career will suffer."
At the UKRIO's launch earlier this year, its chairman Sir Ian Kennedy was scathing about some universities' procedures. He said there was still a "good chaps" network covering up abuses.
Professor Farthing, who chairs the UKRIO's planning group, conceded that there were "institutions whose guidance is less robust than others".
The panel's priority would be establishing a national guidance on how allegations should be made and dealt with, he said. "We are going to produce a legally robust piece of advice. This will give uniformity; so when people have committed misdemeanours, they cannot escape and will face a fair but robust inquiry."
- 73 cases of alleged misconduct were investigated by 42 UK institutions in the past three years
- Of those cases, 25 were upheld and 37 were dismissed. The results are still pending on 11
- The number of cases has risen from 9 in 2004 to in 2006
- 63 institutions did not investigate any cases
CASES BROUGHT TO SCRUTINY
Just one case, in 2005-06, was heard. "There was a finding of research misconduct in relation to the fabrication of data," the university said. The person left Edinburgh before the investigation began, so there was no disciplinary outcome.
Four allegations were investigated, one was upheld - an allegation that data had been "incorrectly presented" in various published articles. It could not be determined if this was "wholly deliberate within the definition of misrepresentation... or a matter of poor research practice".
In 2005-06, a PhD student and his supervisor were found to have plagiarised from others in a paper submitted to a journal. The university informed the editor, who retracted the paper. No action was taken against the supervisor or the PhD student.
In 2005-06, there were allegations that a member of staff "failed to acknowledge in a journal article the use of material drawn from an unpublished paper". The complaint was upheld, and the academic received a written warning.
Imperial College London
Two cases involving plagiarism were not upheld. A case of "unprofessional conduct" has not concluded.
Heard three cases covering the "misuse of research data", "academic integrity" and plagiarism. None led to any formal action.
Held five investigations covering plagiarism and "breaches of confidentiality". Only the plagiarism case was upheld and the person concerned got a "reprimand".
In one case heard in 2004-05, allegations of plagiarism were upheld and an academic got a formal warning.
King's College London
Four cases were heard. One allegation of research fraud in 2004-05 was resolved after a preliminary inquiry. The result included the retraction of an article in a journal.
School of Pharmacy, London University
One case of alleged "scientific fraud" was put down to "a matter of scientific differences as to how the subject matter was approached".
A case in 2005-06 involved an academic who used material from the co-author of a paper without agreement. This was put down to "a discourtesy rather than a breach of research ethics".
There were two cases, one of which was upheld. An investigation established that "through an oversight, the researcher had not acknowledged that [an] article did use others' work alongside his own original research."
Queen's University Belfast
One of three cases was upheld, in 2005-06. A researcher had not complied "with prevailing procedures". The "performance management procedure was applied".
One case in 2004-05, alleged the misuse of research funds, which was found to be proven. "The contract of the individual concerned was terminated as a result of the findings."