Does labeling bad behavior “scientific misconduct” help or hurt research integrity? A debate rages

Is eliminating the concept of “misconduct” a sign of progress in the fight for research integrity, or a step backward?

That’s the debate playing out in Australia, where a proposal from national research bodies would make it the latest country to embrace a broader definition of ethical lapses in research, doing away with the term “misconduct.” Proponents argue the change will encourage more reporting of all types of bad behavior—not just the most extreme forms such as data fabrication, which are typically associated with the term “misconduct.” But critics argue the move could soften enforcement, as every institution applies its own definitions of misbehavior. (To tell us what you think, take our poll at the bottom of the story.)

The proposal comes in the form of a revised edition of Australia’s national research code of conduct. 

The original version was published in 2007 and drafted by three organizations: the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), the Australian Research Council (ARC) and Universities Australia (UA). Like other research integrity codes around the world, though not in itself legally binding, it serves as formal guidelines for ethical reviews by research institutions and funding agencies. The revised code has been available in draft form since last year, and is currently in a period of public consultation until February 28.

In an FAQ posted with the draft code, the stated aim of the revision is to streamline the code so that it

provides clear, practical, relevant and contemporary guidance that can be applied to a range of different research contexts.

The FAQ also says that the working group consulted with nearly 50 research institutes and government agencies in 2015 while crafting the revisions.

Perhaps the most discussed aspect is the removal of the word “misconduct” from the document entirely, replaced by the phrase “breaches of the Code.” This echoes similar terminology in the 2016 version of Canada’s equivalent code of conduct.

The rationale for this change, as laid out in accompanying explanatory material, is to

encourage more transparent and consistent reporting of breaches of the Code as a result of not using the term ‘research misconduct,’ which is pejorative and difficult to define.

At the heart of the debate is the history of the term. In the U.S., in particular, lobbying from scientists dating to the 1980s has resulted in the term “misconduct” being codified to only refer to the cardinal sins of falsification, fabrication, and plagiarism. This has left lesser offenses, often categorized as “questionable research practices,” relatively free from scrutiny. Nicholas Steneck, a research ethicist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, calls the term “artificial:”

So to some extent, I think wiping out the term [“misconduct”] might be beneficial…The current system of very rigorously defining what must be done means that the vast majority of cases are not being addressed, and the fact is that a lot of them are not being addressed because you don’t want to trigger the formal process. It probably isn’t worth it to trigger the formal process, so you back away from it. The rules are too arduous.

But some people disagree. Kerry Breen, a retired physician in Melbourne and a member of the NHMRC/ARC Research Integrity Committee, was in the working group that drafted the original 2007 code. In his statement submitted to the committee, which he shared with us, he writes:

In my view, it is very sloppy logic to claim that omission of any reference to research misconduct is because ‘there is not one universally agreed definition of research misconduct’. Anyone who is familiar with the international history and literature on research misconduct should be aware that there is quite close agreement on a definition with the exception of the USA…The use of ‘breach’ in preference to ‘research misconduct’ seems to me to be an amazingly arbitrary decision based solely on its current use in Canada.

David Vaux, a cell biologist at the Walter + Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne and a member of the board of directors for our parent organization, also opposes the terminology shift. He told us in an email:

I do not understand the logic or rationale for this approach, as not using the word “misconduct” won’t make it go away, and if every institution comes up with their own definition, then they are all likely to be different, and handling cases of misconduct that involve more than one institution will be impossible.

Critics also point to one section of the online material that explains that the code is “more aspirational than the previous version,” in part to “support the model of self-regulation in the research sector.”

Writes Breen:

By referring to this new version as “aspirational”, you are in effect telling the reader that it can mostly be ignored.

Some researchers also point out that for research institutions, self-regulation is self-serving—not just to their reputation, but to their bottom line. The stated rationale also notes that “a rigid definition of research misconduct, can be incompatible with existing institutional policies such as enterprise agreements.” Vaux told us:

The revised code says that including any external members on investigatory panels is optional. This represents a step backwards…and will inevitably lead to conflicts of interest.

Vaux has campaigned for the creation of a national office for research integrity, which unlike dozens of other nations, Australia lacks—“to its shame,” he said.

Steneck believes that the new code is a step in the right direction, but acknowledges that in order for it to succeed, universities will need to be held accountable:

How do you know that some of the cases are solved too easily down below? And that’s true, it may happen…Step 1 is, “Yes, I take responsibility.” Step 2 is, “What are you doing to follow through on that responsibility?” That’s where we’re at right now, and that’s where we need to do more pushing.

What do you think? Take our poll, below.

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4 thoughts on “Does labeling bad behavior “scientific misconduct” help or hurt research integrity? A debate rages”

  1. We have good evidence that the large volume of “minor misconduct” is more damaging to science that the smaller number of cases of “major misconduct.” A serious policy must consider both.

  2. There is cause for concern over the permissive language used in the draft of the “Guide to investigating and managing potential breaches of the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research”. The weasel word “should” is used throughout. “Should” is defined as “what people think is the right or correct thing to do”. There is no requirement to do the right thing.

    The Guide states, “Investigations SHOULD afford procedural fairness at all stages…” (Section 4.2). I.e. Procedural fairness is not required, it is recommended. There are many examples in which the use of a permissive word or phrase depicts essential aspects of the investigation of alleged research misconduct as a preferred, but not mandatory course of action:

    • “Major breaches WOULD TYPICALLY REQUIRE require investigation.”
    • “Complaints MAY BE DISMISSED at any stage of the process for a variety of reasons”
    • IT IS IMPORTANT to document all decisions and reasons for those decisions.

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