Plagiarists face clampdown

December 8, 2006

More cases of academic fraud come to light as institutions embrace zero-tolerance culture, reports Phil Baty

Twenty-five UK academics have been found guilty of research misconduct in the past three years, including faking results, plagiarism and misuse of funds.

A Times Higher investigation using the Freedom of Information Act shows a sharp increase in the number of cases in universities, suggesting that a US-style culture of whistleblowing and zero tolerance has arrived in the UK.

Some 105 institutions responded to the survey. There were 73 cases of alleged misconduct investigated between 2004-06. Of these, 25 were upheld, 37 were dismissed, and 11 results are pending.

Although not all respondents specified in which year their misconduct cases took place, there were nine cases in 2003-04, 20 in 2004-05 and last year.

Michael Farthing, principal of St George's Hospital Medical School and a founder of the UK Research Integrity Office (UKRIO), said this rise reflected anecdotal evidence that "misconduct is clearly out of the closet".

"We know that whistleblowers are willing not just to report their concerns internally but externally. I think it is difficult now for institutions to shy away from taking cases forward."

He said that the days when "you just kept this in smoke-filled rooms, swept it under the carpet and hoped that it went away" were largely in the past.

A spokesman for Universities UK said: "Sharing good practice and embedding a zero-tolerance culture is proving to be the effective approach."

Professor Farthing said that the issue was becoming "globalised" and that the culture of the US - where whistleblowing is more common after a series of high-profile cases - had arrived in the UK.

This trend was first highlighted in 2005 when Leeds University lecturer Neil Winn was found guilty of plagiarism in a research paper and disciplined after a Harvard University undergraduate uncovered evidence and reported it to the US scholar whose work had been plagiarised.

The number of cases in the US, which has a well-established Federal Office of Research Integrity, have shot up.

In the UK, Glasgow University had the highest number of cases, five, including one that was upheld and one that has not yet concluded. The university said that this reflected a commitment to clear guidance on the issue.

King's College London had four cases, two of which were upheld. A spokesman said: "King's has a particularly strong culture of reporting concerns, and we rigorously investigate such concerns."

Cardiff University, with four cases (one upheld), said that it had "adopted stringent procedures".

But there were fears that some universities were still not proactive enough in encouraging staff to report concerns - 63 institutions, including several research-intensive universities, had not investigated any cases in the three years.

Although some institutions did not provide details, plagiarism was the most common allegation, followed by the misrepresentation or fabrication of results and misuse of research funds.

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