University research misconduct could carry funding penalty

Universities and research institutes that do not investigate research misconduct properly could have their research council funding removed.

February 26, 2013

The warning comes in Research Councils UK’s revised Policy and Guidelines on Governance of Good Research Conduct, published today.

The document supersedes existing guidance released in 2009 “to reflect growing national and international experience in identifying and promoting good research conduct, and in addressing unsatisfactory conduct”.

It says research organisations should “foster a climate which allows research to be conducted in accordance with good research practice, and to ensure there are procedures in place to deal effectively and fairly with allegations of misconduct”. These include protection for whistleblowers, the designation of a senior figure to oversee research integrity and a formal training programme for all staff.

The document lists lots of examples of misconduct, including fabrication of data or documentation; falsification of data or images; misrepresentation of data, interests, qualifications and level of involvement. 

Peer reviewers are also warned against breaches of confidentiality, misappropriation of the contents of manuscripts and failures to disclose conflicts of interest or “clearly limited competence”.

Researchers who are found, after a formal investigation, to have committed misconduct could have their research council funding withdrawn and be barred from submitting further applications “for any period of time, including indefinitely”, the guidance says. Any research council funding they have previously been awarded could also be clawed back from their institution.

Meanwhile, research organisations that conduct prejudiced or incomplete investigations or fail to follow their own procedures could see their research council funding revoked and current applications rejected.

An institution that fails persistently to follow its own procedures for investigating allegations or whose researchers persistently commit misconduct could also be suspended from submitting any future funding applications.

The announcement of these sanctions – which were not included in the 2009 document - follows criticism by the Commons Science and Technology Committee in its 2011 report into peer review. Expressing surprise that no research council had ever withdrawn funding due to fraud, the report recommended that “funders of research reassess the robustness of their procedures for dealing with allegations…to ensure they are not falling through the cracks”.

It also called for the establishment of an independent regulator to ensure that employers of researchers were “doing the right thing” in overseeing research integrity, and it questioned funders’ decision to withdraw funding for the UK Research Integrity Office at the end of 2010.

Research funders told the committee they believed a “concordat” setting out the responsibilities of funders, researchers and institutions regarding research integrity would be more effective.

The Concordat to Support Research Integrity was published last July. A consultation on whether compliance with it should be required for institutions to receive research funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England ends on March 8.

RCUK’s revised guidelines are intended to complement the concordat and to be read alongside it.

paul.jump@tsleducation.com

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