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Sweden, rocked by scientific scandals, re-thinking how it investigates misconduct

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Flag_of_Sweden.svgThe Swedish government is taking a second look at how it handles misconduct investigations.

According to a spokesperson:

Yes, we have an national investigation ongoing since last autumn. It will investigate how misconduct is investigated and handled in Sweden…

She also sent us a link to a description of the investigation, in Swedish. The outcome of the investigation is expected in November, 2016.

The inquiry predates the media implosion that’s taken place in recent months over the Karolinska Institutet’s (KI) investigation of surgeon Paolo Macchiarini, who transplanted tracheas seeded with patients’ own stem cells. After KI’s vice chancellor cleared him of misconduct, Swedish television aired a documentary series that raised new allegations. In the last few weeks, both the vice chancellor of KI and the secretary general of the Nobel Assembly resigned as a result.

The government spokesperson explained to us how the current system for investigating allegations works in Sweden:

According to the Higher Education Ordinance, a university which learns about a case of alleged research misconduct has to start an investigation. During this investigation, the university can turn to the Expert Group for Scientific Misconduct at the Central Ethical Review Board which will issue a statement. According to the Higher Education Ordinance, the university has an obligation to turn to the Expert Group if the accused researcher, or the whistleblower, demands that a statement should be obtained from the Expert Group.

When research misconduct is found by the university’s investigation they have to decide how to act as an employer. They have an obligation to notify the National Disciplinary Offence Board if a professor has committed a serious offence (such as being found guilty of research misconduct), and that authority can in turn decide if the professor should be dismissed from his/her position.

The current system was introduced to address some previous issues, she noted:

Before 2010 the Swedish Research Council had an Expert Group for Scientific Misconduct. It was a service to the universities that could turn to this Expert Group. The statement of the Expert Group was advisory. It was a completely voluntary system, and not demanded by law. The system was criticized since the Expert Group was not independent, it was part of the largest research funding organization where the influence of scientists is strong.

In 2010 the current system was introduced. The difference is that the Expert Group for Scientific Misconduct at the Central Ethical Review Board is now regulated by law, it is independent of research funding organizations, and the universities now has to turn to the Expert Group if the accused researcher or the whistleblower demands it.

Over the years each university has created their own set of rules of how to perform an investigation of allegations of research misconduct. Since there is no definition of research misconduct in Swedish law, the universities has created their own definitions, but they are of course welcome to follow the policy created by the Swedish Research council.

The spokesperson outlined what the current investigation will entail:

The investigator shall:
– investigate how research misconduct is handled in other countries,
– investigate how the concepts “research integrity” and “research misconduct” are used and how the universities’ responsibility for research integrity can be clarified, if needed,
– review the work of the current Expert Group for Scientific Misconduct at the Central Ethical Review Board, and –  if needed – suggest a new suitable organization for independent examination of suspected research misconduct,
– suggest how legal certainty can be guaranteed when evaluating suspected research misconduct, and
– propose necessary statutes and amendments.

In 2015, the Expert Group for Scientific Misconduct at the Central Ethical Review Board chided two biologists and Uppsala University for events related to “extensive image manipulations” in five papers published between 2010 and 2014. The investigation found that Uppsala professor Kenneth Söderhäll — who has published more than 200 papers — and lecturer Irene Söderhäll acted “negligently” and “dishonestly” by failing to adequately supervise a doctoral student who had manipulated the images.

What’s more, the group criticized Uppsala University for “significantly” delaying the investigation — by, for instance, not securing requested information and not complying with “established scientific routines and standards,” such as archiving original data and research ethics training.

You can read our translation of the review board’s report of the Söderhäll case, dated September 25, 2015.

Last month, zoologist Olof Leimar at Stockholm University, who alerted Uppsala to the allegations against the Söderhälls, told us he believes the current system for investigating such allegations still contains critical flaws:

I think the reason that the Expert Group performed an investigation in this case is that I explicitly asked for it in my formal letter to Uppsala University, where I cited the relevant part of the regulations. My guess is that Uppsala University otherwise would not have asked the Expert Group for advice. I think it is a weakness of the current Swedish system that a university tends to be protective of “its own researchers”. Most likely, this is precisely what happened in the current case.

After we discovered Sweden was taking a second look at how it handles such investigations, we asked Leimar what he thought:

From reading the instructions to the committee, is seems that the most fundamental problem of the current system will remain, i.e., the idea that universities should be in charge of misconduct investigations about their own researchers. The recent experience, both the Macchiarini case at the Karolinska Institute and the Söderhäll case at Uppsala University, illustrates how inept and biased university leadership can be when handling such investigations.

However, there was a bright spot for him:

…it might perhaps suggest changes in the status of the Expert Group for Scientific Misconduct and a greater agreement between universities in the definition of scientific misconduct, which are good things.

We also contacted Margaretha Fahlgren, who is “assigned to lead the work according to the assignment from the government,” she told us. We asked her if there was any specific case of misconduct that prompted the government’s investigation:

The decision to investigate misconduct in research was taken after discussions in, to mention to important organisations, the Swedish association of universities (SUHF) and in the Swedish Research Council…As far as I know there was no specific case which prompted the investigation.

She noted that, while the expert group at the Central Ethical Review Board can also investigate and give advice, it has happened only rarely:

The expert group was established in 2010 but has not handled many cases (1.5/ year).

The government spokesperson also denied that the decision to revisit the system for investigating misconduct stemmed from any particular incident:

No, it has been discussed over a long period of time. The current system, including the Expert Group for Scientific Misconduct at the Central Ethical Review Board, was introduced 2010. In 2013, the Swedish Research Council and the Association of Swedish Higher Education (SUHF) suggested that the current system has weaknesses and does not guarantee total legal certainty. Therefore, they asked the Government to initiate an inquiry to investigate the current system and suggest improved handling of alleged research misconduct.

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Written by Alison McCook

February 25th, 2016 at 8:00 am

  • Withheld February 25, 2016 at 4:31 pm

    I like it… a pattern appears, its root causes are investigated, and substantive changes are coming. It is so… rational.

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