Misconduct policy branded 'Band-Aid for cancer'

September 18, 2008

A new standard procedure outlining how universities should investigate allegations of research misconduct has been issued by the UK Research Integrity Office (UKRIO).

But the procedure, which dictates that universities should use at least one external investigator, has been criticised by campaigners. One branded it a "Band-Aid on a cancer".

Amid calls in some quarters for an independent body with full investigatory powers, the UKRIO launched the procedure because it thinks universities should continue to have responsibility for investigating complaints about their staff.

The procedure says that universities dealing with allegations should appoint one or more people from outside to investigate a complaint - but only after the complaint has been "screened" by senior staff to decide whether it is sufficiently serious.

It will not be mandatory for universities to follow the procedure but the UKRIO, launched in 2006 to promote best practice and offer advice in the area, hoped it would be adopted as the standard.

"Its publication marks an important step in the promotion of good governance in research," Andy Stainthorpe, director of the UKRIO, said. He added that there was a lot of variation in how universities dealt with misconduct cases.

Under the procedure, a "named person" from a university's senior staff would receive allegations. That person would carry out an initial investigation to determine whether the complaint was "mistaken, frivolous, vexatious and/or malicious".

If the allegation "cannot be entirely discounted" it would be referred to a screening panel of at least three senior staff members. If the panel determined that allegations were of "serious substance" and "sufficiently serious" there would be a formal investigation by a panel of "at least three" senior staff with a "requirement" that at least one be from outside the institution.

Harvey Marcovitch, chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics (Cope), said Cope would prefer a mandatory system for dealing with allegations, such as that used by the General Medical Council to investigate allegations against doctors.

Aubrey Blumsohn, a campaigner for greater openness in the investigation of misconduct, said: "It remains the case that one or more powerful individuals are doing the investigating and the balance of power remains heavily tilted towards those who wish to maintain institutional decorum at all costs. It seems to be an attempt to put something in place to placate critics but is more like a Band-Aid on a cancer."

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