Proposed research misconduct watchdog ‘only part of the solution’

Academic questions whether new committee should be hosted by UK Research and Innovation

July 14, 2018
Someone sweeping something under the carpet
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The creation of a new body to oversee research misconduct investigations could help to enforce transparent reporting by UK universities, but would offer a solution to only part of the problem, according to experts.

In their report on research integrity, MPs on the Science and Technology Committee recommended the creation of an independent committee tasked with ensuring that institutions have followed appropriate processes to investigate misconduct, similar to the model operated in Australia and Canada.

The recommendation responds to concerns that universities face a possible conflict of interest if they are policing their own conduct, and to fears that, even when malpractice is uncovered, institutions have been covering it up.

The committee report expressed concern about the use of non-disclosure agreements by universities to “keep misconduct quiet”, highlighting that this potentially made institutions “complicit in future misconduct by that individual” if they went on to be employed elsewhere.

The committee report reveals widespread concern among UK universities about a regulatory approach, with the Russell Group of research-intensive institutions highlighting that a culture that “places an emphasis on compliance with rules can be counterproductive, as it may encourage people to do the minimum, just enough to comply, as opposed to incentivising people to strive to improve research behaviours and practices”.

But Jim Smith, director of science at the Wellcome Trust, told Times Higher Education that a new research integrity committee could help to “put the subject [of misconduct] into context and to identify the extent of the problem”, if nothing else.

Because failure to reproduce experiments could occur for a number of different reasons, he added, it was “important to distinguish between them, not least to assuage public concern”.

John Hardy, chair in molecular biology of neurological disease at UCL, said that the “advantage” of creating a national body would be that “the integrity issues could be separated, at least in part, from the employment issues”, making the investigation process “less torturous” for all involved.

A concern, however, would be to make sure that “policing research integrity does not create a layer of costly bureaucracy”, he noted. “We need to be careful [and ensure] that the remedy for combating poor research integrity is not worse than the disease.”

The proposed research integrity committee, which would operate under the auspices of UK Research and Innovation, would have the power to recommend the removal of public funding from institutions that did not deal with misconduct effectively.

Simon Kolstoe, a senior fellow in the School of Biological Sciences and university ethics adviser at the University of Portsmouth, said that the committee would be placed with UKRI because the UK Research Integrity Office – an independent charity that provides advice on the issue – had declined to take on a watchdog function.

However, UKRI was not the best place for such an operation, Dr Kolstoe said.

“If it is hosted by UKRI, it is very unlikely to have any influence over the commercial sector – probably the sector that requires the most scrutiny,” he said. “It struck me during the inquiry that there was too much focus on research funding that comes from government finances, and little worry about the vast majority of research that comes from other funding.”

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