Research Intelligence - Fighting for integrity

UKRIO, set up to ensure probity in research, needs funds - but some can’t see a role for it, writes Paul Jump

June 30, 2011

Credit: Nacho Doce/ReutersTooth and lies: The need to police research ethics continues, UKRIO says

The future of research integrity oversight in the UK became slightly clearer during a recent hearing of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, despite the UK Research Integrity Office’s subsequent complaints about “inaccuracies” in funders’ explanations of why its support has not been renewed.

UKRIO was set up in 2006 to improve coordination in dealing with research misconduct. It offered advice to research organisations and individuals - both accusers and the accused - about handling allegations and investigations.

The body was set up within Universities UK but had an independent board and a remit confined to biomedicine. Funding for the pilot phase was provided by the Department of Health, the Wellcome Trust, Research Councils UK and the UK funding councils.

That funding ran out at the end of 2010 and was not renewed. A UUK-RCUK working group chaired by Dame Janet Finch, former vice-chancellor of Keele University, called for the establishment of an advisory body on research misconduct that spanned all academic disciplines, but that was ignored by funders.

Rick Rylance, chair-elect of RCUK, told the Science and Technology Committee’s peer review inquiry earlier this month that a priority of all funders was to ensure that researchers comply with the requirements of their grants to conduct their research with rectitude. But he did not see how an advisory body could also provide such an “assurance” role, he said.

Rather than setting up an external regulatory body - for which there was “no appetite”, he said - funders wanted to establish a “concordat” that would spell out the responsibilities of research organisations regarding research integrity.

However, contrary to what some seem to believe, UKRIO has not gone away. It is operating as an independent company from rented space at the University of Sussex. Surviving on the reserves it built up from operating surpluses, it is seeking alternative funding sources.

The need remains

James Parry, the office’s acting head, said he was confident that such funds would be found and was robust in his defence of the continuing need for UKRIO - especially in the absence of any successor body to which it could “pass on the torch”.

He said he would welcome a concordat and offered the “considerable expertise and unique practical experience” of UKRIO’s largely voluntary staff in formulating it. But he added that there would still be a need for an independent body that advised universities on how to implement their responsibilities and also helped whistleblowers bring concerns to light.

Mr Parry said the value of UKRIO was demonstrated by the continuing rise in its case load, which stood at 64 in 2010.

He objected to the remark made by Sir Mark Walport that responsibility for research integrity was “not something (universities) should be delegating to someone else”, which the Wellcome Trust director made before the select committee.

UKRIO’s chair, Sir Ian Kennedy, had written to the select committee to make it clear that this was not something UKRIO has ever advocated, Mr Parry said.

Sir Ian’s letter also corrected Professor Rylance’s implication that UKRIO dealt only with cases from biomedicine, Mr Parry continued. From its inception, despite the remit, the organisation had fulfilled a demand for advice from across the academy, and only about 50 per cent of present cases came from biomedicine, he argued.

He also noted that its guidelines on research integrity had been formally adopted by a number of universities and had been quoted in recent documents produced by both RCUK and the Economic and Social Research Council.

“Neither (document) implies that our advice is applicable only to biomedicine,” Mr Parry said. “There are specific technical considerations for each discipline, but there can be common approaches to common situations.”

But Chris Hale, deputy director of policy at UUK, said that the continued dominance of UKRIO’s board by medics had been an “issue” for funders. The organisation’s focus on “firefighting” had also, in his view, prevented it from doing enough to make sure best practice was embedded in universities. And its lack of “strength” meant it had been unable to create the desired level of harmonisation in approaches to misconduct or to address the “big unanswered question” of how to bring industrial funders of research into the fold, Mr Hale argued.

He said he hoped that a meeting of stakeholders next month, which UUK is coordinating, would result in a consensus so that a concordat could be launched in the autumn.

But Liz Wager, chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics and a member of UKRIO’s advisory group, agreed with Mr Parry that a concordat would not be enough. She also could not see any reason why UKRIO could not formally evolve into a more “proactive” body that covered all disciplines.

“Whatever shortcomings it might have had, it sent a good message that we were taking research integrity seriously in the UK,” she said. “For the major funders and the institutions to allow us to get to a situation where effectively there is nothing (overseeing research integrity) is an embarrassment.”

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