“Our current approaches are not working:” Time to make misconduct investigation reports public, says integrity expert

C. K. Gunsalus

With the 6th World Conference on Research Integrity (WCRI) underway in Hong Kong, C.K. Gunsalus, who has served as a research integrity officer, expert witness in scientific integrity cases, and consultant, argues in Nature this week that universities should “Make reports of research misconduct public.” We asked her a few questions about why she has changed her mind about this issue.

Retraction Watch (RW): We have of course been campaigning for universities to release investigation reports for some time, and have published a number of them following public records requests and reviews of court documents. What led you to this call to make them public?

C.K. Gunsalus (CKG): I argued the opposite position for many years, decades, even. What led me to this call is that our current approaches are not working: not for credibility of investigations, not for reinforcing research integrity, not for protecting the integrity of the research community.

Indeed, it was two reports made public that started my rethinking. One institution released a report that made up a whole new term, “research misbehavior,” seemingly to avoid a finding of research misconduct. The second cited a litany of actions taken by a researcher that, in any objective view, were misconduct yet found “no misconduct” because the researcher said he “hadn’t intended to” commit research misconduct, therefore, without intent, there could be no research misconduct. As time went on, the excellent reports I saw were more rare–and there are no data or way to assess whether strong or weak reports predominate.

Institutional secrecy around other issues has recently proven very damaging to some great universities. I believe it is time to apply some sunshine to this aspect of our work that is so central to the values and mission of educational and research institutions.

RW: What problems have you seen in investigation reports?

CKG: The most problematic start with the wrong questions and the wrong frame. The ones that go most off the rails generally narrow the scope of review, focusing on only one person, or limited aspects of the allegations. I once consulted on a report where the institution sought to redact the name of the respondent when reporting to a federal oversight agency. I’ve seen reports that focused only on publications, or only on grant applications, ignoring the other. I’ve reviewed reports where people with key information were not interviewed, even when still on campus. The list is very long: we cited several in our JAMA paper, for example.

RW: Although there are some exceptions, universities typically find reasons not to release investigation reports. They argue that regulations require them to be confidential, or that they should not be released before investigations are complete — while dragging their feet finishing said investigations. As you note, “There will be many complex choices to work through to make this a reality.” How do you propose to do that?

CKG: With the possibility of a Research Integrity Advisory Board, or Research Policy Board, coming into being under the aegis of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine in the US, now is the time to start the conversation.

RW: You write that in the case of Robert Slutsky, “a faculty committee reviewing all 137 of his publications found that 60 were fraudulent or questionable” and then “they published their findings and worked to correct the literature.” But only 17 of Slutsky’s papers have been retracted, and only three have expressions of concern. That’s just one example of many cases in which the literature hasn’t been fully corrected. Can releasing investigation reports help fix this process?

CKG: That is my belief and hope. The more that institutions doing an exemplary job share their approaches and findings openly, the higher the bar for their peers–improving the situation for all. Do not underestimate the changed internal calculus of who will review reports, and how carefully, if the regular practice is for them to become public. Transparency increases accountability.

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