New code to crack down on research misconduct

November 4, 2005

Universities are introducing a code of practice for researchers, which will enable them to hold academics to account for mistakes and malpractice, The Times Higher can reveal.

The Russell Group of research-intensive universities has agreed the "code of practice on good research governance" to show research sponsors - industry funders in particular - that they are professional in their approach.

But it has alarmed unions and academics, who are angry that it has been drafted without sufficient consultation.

The code is designed as a broad checklist of potential problem areas universities should watch out for, rather than laying down specific regulations. It covers issues ranging from intellectual property rights to plagiarism and falsification of research results.

But it will give vice-chancellors a more definite basis from which to take action against researchers who flout the guidelines.

Michael Sterling, chairman of the group and vice-chancellor of Birmingham University, said: "The governing body of an institute would be quite upset if something went wrong with research sponsorship and the individual involved hadn't followed this guidance."

He added: "This does give institutions more clout. You would expect staff to follow it and if they don't you have some sanctions. It is a disciplinary issue."

Trevor Page, pro vice-chancellor at Newcastle University, who drafted the code, said: "Over the past 12 months we've all been coming under increasing pressure from many research sponsors about a range of issues broadly concerned with quality assurance."

"The price of research programmes may vary between institutions but quality should not."

Diana Green, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, confirmed last week that newer universities would be likely to follow in the Russell Group's footsteps and implement a similar code.

But Sally Hunt, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, the union that represents staff in old universities, expressed disappointment that researchers and union representatives had been shut out of the process.

She said: "We are especially concerned at the implication that this document could be used to instigate disciplinary action against individual researchers.

She added: "It also seems slightly odd to develop such a charter without any reference to the requirements of the recent European charter in respect of career development and job security for researchers."

Ian Haines, president of the UK Deans of Science Committee, said: "This is more potential micromanagement. We are getting too many regulatory statements."

He added: "The fact that the Russell Group has devised this on its own suggests that it is trying to market itself as a separate entity. My suspicion is that this is set up to make it almost impossible to allow anyone else to do scientific research."

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