UKRI agrees to create research integrity watchdog

Umbrella body for research councils accepts MPs’ call for organisation to monitor whether universities carry out misconduct investigations properly

June 10, 2019
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UK Research and Innovation has committed to creating a watchdog charged with examining whether universities have carried out research misconduct investigations properly.

UKRI, the umbrella body for the country’s research funding councils, makes the commitment in a document setting out its priorities for the next year. It is a response to a call by MPs on the Science and Technology Committee, who expressed concern that universities faced a possible conflict of interest when they policed their own conduct.

In a report published last year, the committee called for the creation of such a watchdog, similar to the model operated in Australia and Canada. MPs expressed concern that one in four UK universities had not published an annual summary of research misconduct investigations, as demanded by the Concordat to Support Research Integrity – compliance with which is technically stated as a prerequisite for receiving public grants and funding.

The panel said that this made it difficult to determine the full scale of research misconduct in the UK, and expressed concern that some universities were thought to be using non-disclosure agreements to prevent the release of details about sensitive cases.

UKRI did not release more details about the proposed watchdog, beyond saying that it would be able to “independently examine whether research institutions have followed appropriate processes to investigate misconduct”.

MPs said that the new entity – which they described as a “research integrity committee” – should be able to recommend to UKRI that if institutions were found not to have followed appropriate processes, their access to research funding should be curtailed.

They also said that it should publish an annual report on the state of research integrity in the UK, including information on retractions, misconduct investigations and their outcomes as well as training undertaken to improve the system from within.

The UKRI document – called a delivery plan – outlines a range of other actions that the umbrella body plans to take to tackle research misconduct.

These include a planned assessment of training on research integrity provided by doctoral training partnerships “to identify any challenges and to consider the case for adjustments”.

The organisation also plans to commission one of its constituent councils, Research England, to conduct research on “the impact of incentives in the research system on researcher behaviour to identify options and approaches for adjustments and counterbalances needed to support research integrity”.

Recent research misconduct cases – such as that of cancer biologist Abderrahmane Kaidi, who resigned from the University of Bristol after admitting making up experiments and fabricating data – have raised concerns that the pressure to secure a permanent position, and to attract research funding, might lead scholars to commit misconduct.

However, some universities have expressed concern about the creation of a new watchdog. In its evidence to the Commons committee, the Russell Group of research-intensive institutions highlighted 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”.

A UKRI spokesman said: “We welcomed the recommendation by the Science and Technology Committee on the creation of a new research integrity committee and we are actively working on its development alongside government and key stakeholders. We will provide an update in summer 2019.”

chris.havergal@timeshighereducation.com

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