Report sets out new vetting system for research staff

A new integrity office detecting misconduct could be on the horizon, reports Zoe Corbyn

July 31, 2008

A new research integrity body, which would have powers to investigate allegations of misconduct and create a database of cases to allow universities to vet would-be academic staff, could soon be in operation.

The idea is set out in a consultation document on how to improve the conduct of research, released by Research Councils UK, the umbrella organisation for Britain's seven research councils.

The paper suggests that "in the absence of any clear national advisory or governance framework", a new body could be set up to cover all academic disciplines.

It might also offer independence to counter concerns that individual institutions, currently left alone to investigate allegations, "may have, or be perceived as having, their own interests in such matters".

As well as an advisory function, the new national body could also "oversee investigations of the most serious complaints" and "provide a central record, for consultation by employers, of all proven cases of misdemeanour or misconduct, and of resulting penalties and sanctions".

At the moment there is no national repository of known cases, and individuals may move from one research organisation to another without cases against them being disclosed, the document notes.

Harvey Marcovitch, chair of the Committee of Publication Ethics (Cope), said he supported the formation of a national body to undertake investigations, but said universities were "unlikely to accept an overriding of their autonomy". Britain does have an existing structure - the UK Panel for Research Integrity in Health and Biomedical Sciences, which is supported by the UK Research Integrity Office (UKRIO) - but this has no investigatory powers and can only promote best practice and offer advice.

Andy Stainthorpe, the director of the UKRIO, welcomed discussion on the issues. "There are situations where a case might be such that it would benefit from being investigated outside the organisation. I think there could be situations where the organisation would agree with that itself - but to impose it might not be the right step at this time."

He added that the UKRIO was taking a different approach to the research councils proposal - building up a database of "wholly anonymised" cases as a source of information.

The RCUK consultation also attempts to formulate clear guidance on what is and is not acceptable research conduct, covering issues ranging from plagiarism to falsification of data to the protection of research subjects.

It also says UK institutions may not be doing enough to investigate and report minor failures and misdemeanours. "Although this may not be perceived as a major issue ... it can contribute to a culture which does not expose major issues until they become overpowering."

For UK Rio, call 0844 7700644 or email for advice.

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