UK House of Commons committee wants to make sure “university investigations into research misconduct are handled appropriately”

As Retraction Watch readers may recall, the UK’s House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has been holding an inquiry into scientific misconduct for well over a year. During that inquiry, we submitted written evidence including some statistics about how the UK’s retraction rate compared to other countries, and our Ivan Oransky gave oral testimony late last year.

Today, the committee released a report of its findings, along with several recommendations. Among them are for all UK universities to “establish a national Research Integrity Committee to provide a means of verifying that university investigations into research misconduct are handled appropriately.”

Norman Lamb, chair of the committee, said in a statement:

While most universities publish an annual report on research integrity, six years from signing a Concordat which recommends doing so it is not yet consistent across the sector. It’s not a good look for the research community to be dragging its heels on this, particularly given research fraud can quite literally become a matter of life and death.

We asked C. K. Gunsalus, who serves as director of the National Center for Professional & Research Ethics and who has studied institutional integrity for decades, for her take on the report.

C. K. Gunsalus

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s Research Integrity: Sixth Report of Session 2017-19 Report is both good news and bad news. The good news is that the report crisply lays out the importance of a number of important challenges to research integrity, not only in the UK, but for all research communities internationally:

  • prevention through effective education is a good investment;
  • the environment in which researchers work is just as important as individual proclivities and must be assessed and improved;
  • serious research fraud is relatively rare and yet can be devastating when it occurs;
  • and that there are major gaps in a system that relies upon voluntary institutional self-policing, membership, and transparency.

The bad news is this is not the first capable report to make these findings. Many have done so — often less clearly and succinctly than this new report — in a range of settings over recent decades without much resulting change or action to show from it.

This is not criticism of this strong and clear report. It is criticism of the ongoing preference the research community has shown for analyzing and discussing known challenges while continuing to do more of the same. The Report documents that around quarter of universities did not take even the simplest steps to fulfil the basic recommendation of producing an annual report on research integrity—which has been required since 2013 to receive central research funding in the UK.  

Earnest and well-meaning efforts and exhortations are not sufficient if there is no follow-through or requirements for action. Nor do they help where there is no effective consequence for institutions that do not police their own effectively–or that act in individual interest and let resign quietly those who start up anew and commit the same acts over again, as noted in the report and in a recent piece at Undark by Alison McCook of Retraction Watch. At present, institutions judge their own for reasons of cost, practicality, and accessibility: universities generally employ the scientists, enroll the students, own the facilities, and hold the funding for any research that is questioned. Yet we all know that there are profound conflicts of interest in judging your own.

At the National Center for Professional & Research Ethics, we have been engaged in projects to improve transparency and the trustworthiness of institutional self-policing by seeking out, posting, and proposing standards institutional reports should meet.  This approach is based on the model of peer review for making research rigorous and what is known about overcoming conflicts of interest and cognitive biases tending to favor members of our own “in group.” Along with Retraction Watch, we have published a sample starting place checklist, and made our assessments of one report public–with more to come.

We hope to create a repository of research misconduct allegation review reports and to build a community of qualified reviewers to share reviews of them.  We hope and believe that shared transparent community standards used by peer reviewers will contribute to stronger reports–and ultimately improve public trust. This is already mandated in Japan, where findings of research misconduct are listed and publicized along with institutional responses. This resolve is rooted in the principle that misconduct “violates the true nature of research activities…  is a betrayal of science itself, undermines faith in science, and hinders scientific progress.”

We have started these projects while we await some meaningful community change–change we hope might come from the implementation of the recent NASEM Fostering Integrity Report recommending creation of a Research Integrity Advisory Board (RIAB), or a plan for the signatories to the UK’s Research Concordat to meet to discuss the new report’s recommendations. As noted by Nature, the functions of the recommended RIAB are much needed  to bring a wide range of stakeholders together, to create a clearinghouse of resources, to address institutional conflicts of interest in reviewing the conduct of their own more effectively and credibly for the good of the community as a whole. The proposed RIAB would serve a different function from the committee recommended by the newest report, one which seems more like a national appeals body for institutional processes gone awry.

While the appeals committee suggested by this report may be a step in the right direction, it is also arguably too little, too late. With our community’s accumulating record, we have come to believe that only bringing more sunlight and transparency to reports can produce the rigor they need to be credible. We acknowledge there are challenges in establishing a system in which institutional reports are consistently transparent–made public–in a way that is even-handed, fair, and does not create new, perverse system-gaming. It is past time to tackle these challenges head-on.

Similarly, we must do more than simply talk about the importance of the research environments our institutions provide. NCPRE has created and administered online the only validated tool available for  assessing the integrity of research environments, the Martinson-Thrush Survey for Organizational Research Climate (SOURCE). The data produced through institution-wide measurements of research environments–profoundly important influencing factors on individual choices–and the growing international benchmark database to compare results with anonymized data from peer institutions. If national or international bodies ever come into being, perhaps these functions would be incorporated in some fashion into their portfolios. In the meantime, we have dived in because the need is so pressing.

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9 thoughts on “UK House of Commons committee wants to make sure “university investigations into research misconduct are handled appropriately””

  1. Did you get a preview? Report get posted and taken down? Now the report links says “Report to be published on 11 July 2018”

  2. As an industry outsider, I follow these stories out of curiosity. That said, the hand-wringing over pervasive problems with research integrity reminds me of the way the church traditionally dealt with sex scandals. There are few incentives *inside* the research community to bring abuses or abusers to light, and revolutionary reforms may only be triggered by external *victims* suing. Maybe class action suits by people harmed by faulty or fraudulent research, or funders upset about wasted research money, or something along these lines. Just a thought.

  3. “Yet we all know that there are profound conflicts of interest in judging your own.”

    I disagree with this statement and would alter it to say that there are potential conflicts of interest and/or the appearance of conflicts, but not necessarily real conflicts. As one who has conducted inquiries and investigations for my institution, I have seen ONLY diligent, honest hard work of committee members and dedication to research integrity. However, I DO favor moving misconduct processes out of the home institution for a different reason: that one of the common and major defenses of respondents (conflicts of interest) could be rendered moot. Various stories on Retractionwatch show evidence of this.

    1. Dr. Abbot: I, too, have seen may committee members provide diligent, honest, hard work stemming from a dedication to research integrity. At the same time, we know that humans tend to identify with members of their own “in groups.” I have seen and I believe that these conflicts of interest can be overcome with proper committee orientation and framing–and of course, some committee members never need this as they bring their own correction for the in-built identification that can follow. My own sense is that it will be very difficult–and potentially prohibitively expensive–to move investigations totally out of home institutions. It is best practice, however, in my view, for every investigation committee to include a member from outside the home institution.

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Dr. Gunsalus. First, I intended to emphasize “necessarily”. While I think there are possibilities and actual instances of conflicts, I don’t agree that they are inevitable. And in my experience in my institutions, actual conflicts haven’t occurred (my experience includes more than one inquiry and more than one investigation).

    I’m not sure that inclusion of one member will accomplish what you hope for, and I’m not sure the cost of having outside people conduct investigations would be prohibitive–there are cases where litigation has been done via videoconferencing, for example (no travel costs, hotels, per diems, etc.).

    One last thought: the first time I was chosen to participate in the process, I’m pretty sure I didn’t do a great job. It was entirely new to me, at the start I could barely believe scientists could be dishonest (I know, you don’t have to say it), it was additional work while I still had to do my teaching, research and service functions, etc. Subsequently, I’ve been on committees with others who had never done it before, and they faced the same difficulties I faced initially.

    So, in my experience, the biggest problem is lack of experience, not conflict or group identification. Having outsiders or at least a standing committee comprised of experienced people could overcome that. But internal investigations will, in my opinion, ALWAYS present the opportunity for respondents to create conspiracy theories, and as evidenced in the stories here at RW, many people fall for them!

    1. Dr. Abbott (sorry about the missing “t” last time): I think we are in substantial agreement. The issue of orienting new committee members is a significant one, and I have devoted a lot of energy over the years to developing materials and framing that assists in that endeavor.

      I was a Research Integrity Officer for many years, so have seen multiple committees operate, as well as reviewed reports from a wide range of other institutions. I have seen really superb committee work and I have seen sub-optimum work. The institution where I served as RIO for many years required an external member, always, for investigations, and it was often very, very helpful and successful. So much of course turns on individuals and their understanding of their role in the process.

      I am not a fan of standing committees for a range of reasons, too complex to go into here. This is an area where some actual data and studies would be so helpful. For that, we need far more transparency in institutional reports and processes…. regards, CKG

  5. As someone who was part of three University/ Industry research misconduct allegations in the UK over recent years I can, in all honesty, say they are a pure whitewash. I have read what one of those Universities reported to the Government in the links in the report and it does not fit with my experience. Dreadful. This is a University wide problem. Alot of grant money are obtained via publications using, frankly, made up data.

    We need an wholly independent panel and moreso a panel that can investigate research misconduct allegations from the last ten years and have powers to severely penalise University individuals and authorities who have buried serial, and potentially, criminal Research misconduct. At that point the cheaters may either move away from research or stop. This is for the benefit of all.

    I know of nowhere else where vast amounts of money may be obtained via charities and government agencies via science-fraud and nothing happens to the fraudsters.

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