Singapore Statement seeks global cooperation to clarify and reduce misconduct, writes Paul Jump
The launch of the European Science Foundation's new code on research integrity marked a new level of international cooperation in dealing with what many perceive to be a growing problem.
As well as the more obvious examples of misconduct, such as plagiarism or falsifying results, the code also cautions against negligence, conflicts of interest, breaches of confidentiality and abuse of research subjects.
Launched at the World Conference on Research Integrity in Singapore last month, the code was agreed between universities, funding bodies and learned societies from 30 European countries and is expected to form the basis of a global agreement on research integrity.
It is hoped that this "Singapore Statement", to be finalised in the next few weeks, will set out basic agreed principles, such as definitions of honesty and misconduct, as a first step towards a fully fledged global code.
"There can be no first-class research without integrity," said Marja Makarow, chief executive of the ESF.
"Researchers continually work with colleagues in other countries and build on each other's results, so they must be honest with themselves and with each other and share the same standards of fairness."
Meanwhile, prominent academic publishers have unveiled a new software package that checks for plagiarism.
Trials of the system have revealed plagiarism in up to 23 per cent of submitted articles, according to a report in Nature.
The magazine also quotes a recent analysis suggesting that 2 per cent of scientists have reported committing misconduct at least once, while 34 per cent have admitted to "questionable practices" such as over-interpretation of findings.
The 2,600 US scientists who responded to a survey reported more than 600 cases of fabrication or falsification.
The report that contains the ESF code, Fostering Research Integrity in Europe, quotes a consultant at the US Office of Research Integrity as claiming that one in every 100 researchers engages in serious misconduct over a three- to five-year period.
But it also notes that most researchers regard "flagrant cases of deliberate dishonesty" as rare events.
Falsifications remain rare
Martyn Poliakoff, research professor of chemistry at the University of Nottingham, agreed with this point.
"I have had more than 100 PhD students and I have not been aware of any of them or any of my colleagues' students falsifying or fabricating anything."
He said this was because fabrication was easily discovered and its effects were devastating to people's careers.
"In the regulatory atmosphere that we live in, people will expect there to be rules, but it isn't a major issue and the rules are unlikely to have much impact on the ground because nearly all scientists are honest," he said.
But not all see it that way. Peter Lawrence, a researcher in the department of zoology at the University of Cambridge, was among a number of academics who complained in 2008 that their previous findings had not been properly cited in a paper published in the journal Cell.
He said "shady practices" had become "endemic" in science. "Many 'successful' scientists have learned how best to work the system; they reassure each other that practices like the manipulation of editors, sales techniques, creative referencing and mutually and tacitly agreed positive reviewing are not only effective but are morally OK," he said.
His worry is that ethical codes are unlikely to rein in researchers' behaviour without a system of enforcement.
He said there needed to be an ombudsman to whom aggrieved scientists could appeal and whose rulings would be published on the internet.
But he warned against replicating the Office of Research Integrity, which he said had "fiendishly bureaucratic and legalistic" methods of operating.
Laura Marin, science officer at the ESF, cautioned against a US-style "criminalising approach", which could damage science by "creating a culture of fear among researchers and affecting public trust.
"The European approach is that we should focus on principles, not on punishment, and this is something that has strongly influenced the tone of the Singapore Statement," she said.
"Often misconduct is caused by lack of information, especially when the situation is not black and white. Education on integrity should form part of PhD curricula, but it was agreed in Singapore that there should also be a lifelong series of reminders."