Nearly two years ago, a report from the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) called for a new advisory board that would promote research integrity and tackle misconduct. That board does not yet exist, but today in Nature, five authors, led by C. K. Gunsalus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, argue that it should, and describe next steps in its creation. We asked Gunsalus a few questions about the idea.
Retraction Watch (RW): Tell us what the research policy board would do. Who would fund it?
C. K. Gunsalus (CKG): An independent research integrity advisory board could standardize protocols and practices, and function as a clearinghouse of information and a source of guidance for those concerned with research integrity and responses to problems. It could, for example, collect and share best practices in responsible conduct of research education, institutional policies and structures that are particularly effective at different scales and intensity of research, as well as responses to allegations of research misconduct. It could provide resources and insights into what is known about research on research integrity, and ways to assess and measure the integrity of research environments. It would provide a place for a wide range of stakeholders to discuss and grapple with some of the recurring problems in this area.
Four NASEM committees have recommended creation of an independent board of this sort, and each has suggested a model; they have more in common than they differ. The Fostering Integrity in Research Committee, on which two of my co-authors and I served, envisioned funding from public and private sponsors of research, societies, publishers, industrial members, and universities, with variable contribution levels. As the Fostering Integrity report says:
For example, the [Research Integrity Advisory Board] RIAB could serve as a forum for the discussion of issues where no community consensus currently exists (such as what the appropriate penalties for research misconduct should be) or where current disparate approaches should be harmonized (such as the implementation of the federal research misconduct policy in areas such as plagiarism).
RW: You point out that experts — including yourself and two of your co-authors — have been recommending such a board since 1992. Why hasn’t the idea taken hold, and do you think that 2019 is different?
CKG: People are busy and the world keeps moving. Structural responses tend to be event- and scandal-driven, so attention waxes and wanes depending on the events of the moment. What has changed since 1992 is that these problems have not gone away. The work of Retraction Watch and many others has demonstrated that there are recurring problems for which we do not have in place systems that are as effective as the research community–and those affected by the research we conduct–needs.
RW: You write that “The board should not be a government institution,” in part because some existing agencies have “actively steered away from the trickiest issues.” Can you say more about that?
CKG: For example, the Office of Research Integrity, which has overview of all PHS-supported research, including that funded by NIH, says that allegations arising from “authorship and collaboration disputes” are outside of its purview. Yet any institutional officer or editor can tell you that such issues are frequent and difficult–and often reveal deeper problems with research.
RW: You cite the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) as an example of a non-governmental organization that has accomplished much in this space, in particular helping “editors to navigate fraught decisions, treat researchers more fairly and buttress the literature.” But critics have said that COPE — a membership organization of journals and publishers — lacks teeth, and it was only 2017 that it clarified that it could kick out members who behaved badly. As of that point, it had not yet revoked a membership. How would the RPB avoid such criticism?
CKG: The body we envision would not be an enforcement body: it would collect resources, share best practices, and provide a forum for discussion of knotty issues. Other mechanisms will continue to be needed for enforcement and for handling allegations of misconduct when they arise. With more and better informed information on best practices, those responses will be able to improve for those who are trying to do better–and it may highlight less ideal responses.
RW: You write that you “plan to take the first steps within the next few weeks.” Tell us about those steps.
CKG: Marcia McNutt, the President of the National Academy of Sciences, is devoting a plenary session to the topic of the trustworthiness of science this spring, where the role of a national board will be discussed. As the next step, we propose to convene a meeting dedicated to exploring the creation and support of such a body in the fall of this year.
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