Is it time for a new research integrity board in the U.S.?

C. K. Gunsalus

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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9 thoughts on “Is it time for a new research integrity board in the U.S.?”

  1. I realize that it is very early in the process, but given the increasingly global nature of scientific research, I was wondering whether there has been any discussion by proponents of the national board to, once established, ‘franchise’ into other countries to encourage the international harmonization of research integrity practices.

    1. Indeed, the international nature of science is a very big issue. I think if we can get some best practice guidelines in place by a reputable, widely representative body in the US, we will be in a better place for seeking international harmonization. We are not in a position to speak with even just a few voices on important issues right now. I hope that day will come–and soon enough to be useful.

  2. I frankly wonder what another advisory-only board will do. We have COPE. We have various people putting forward rules and best practices. What we do not have, as the interview acknowledges, is any kind of coherent enforcement. ORI gives penalties that are widely acknowledge to be jokes–a few years’ suspension for serious research fraud. Universities have a clear conflict of interest and often drag their feet, as we saw with Wansink at Cornell. Until there is enforcement, we can make up new rules and best practices until we’re blue in the face and the problem will continue to not go away.

    1. The problem with enforcement is that the only feasible place to do most investigations is at the home institution, which is the employer, enroller of students, owner of equipment and facilities, and funding recipient/fiduciary. To paraphrase a famous description of democracy, it’s the worst system except for all the others. We simply must have ways to improve and strengthen the credibility of institutional proceedings and responses. A highly reputable set of guidelines about best practices by a respected body means that institutions that aren’t following them could be susceptible to accountability. One of the topics that needs to be debated is how much transparency is best practice. Others, as you note, include how to address conflicts of interest with credibility, timelines that are reasonable, and a score of other practices. The more there is consensus and a clear, respected voice speaks on best practices, the more likely we are to make headway with a system that is complex by necessity, I’d argue. I’m not sure the problem will ever “go away.” Improvement in our current situation would be progress, in my view.

  3. “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.”

    Which means it would be almost completely useless. These things already exist, and honestly, it’s just so tiresome to keep forming committees, doing surveys, writing toothless statements, and going through all these various machinations designed to display how committed we all are to research integrity now. The issues in research integrity do not stem from a lack of available resources, training, and guidance. Those things are widely and freely available and have been for quite some time. What’s really lacking is accountability.

    We need real oversight, real policies with real consequences for noncompliance, and institutions who don’t have a reflexive aversion to imposing practical requirements on their investigators. And that requires authority and enforcement. Sorry, there’s no way around it. We can keep talking about it, or we can do something. This would just be more talk.

  4. Great idea. There’s a limit to what ORI and NSF can do to establish best practices for research integrity.

    I believe the authors and contributors of the NASEM report should recuse themselves from being on this board.

    Mary Kuhner, although I acknowledge a few cases where the “penalties” were light, I disagree that ORI’s penalties are widely acknowledged to be jokes. That’s a statement that’s repeated by a few vocal people online, most of whom I would guess are not involved with the research misconduct process. Amongst many RIOs and other academecians, we know that a few years suspension from working on NIH grants is a career ender for most researchers.

  5. I will stand by my statement. In other careers, if you misappropriate half a million dollars and get caught, you should expect to have to pay it back or do jail time or both. Being banned for 2-3 years from receiving more funds is not good enough.

    Looking at recent ORI reports, I am struck by the case of Brandi Baughman, who was found in 2017 to have committed research misconduct (falsification of data) and given three years of required supervision, and asked to sign a statement saying that there were no further papers of hers containing falsified data. In 2018 this signed statement was found to be false, and she was suspended from funding for two years.

    Probably Dr. Baughman will have trouble finding a research job when her two years are up; but ORI could have accomplished that simply by publicizing her fraud. Even in this rather extreme case, there is still no pathway to redress the fact that she took money which could have gone to honest researchers and wasted it all (since nothing coming from her lab, evidently, can be trusted).

    If it is really true that a two-year suspension is equivalent to a life suspension, why bother with the two (three, five) year suspensions as if there was some difference between them? Why send the message that this level of fraud is a recoverable offense, if it is not?

    (I understand that ORI has no power to do more than suspension. But that’s exactly my point. We need some body with enforcement authority, badly, because what ORI can do is totally inadequate.)

  6. I share some of the views expressed thus far, particularly the need for tighter accountability and stronger sanctions for perpetrators. But, I also strongly believe that there is a dire need for an authoritative global body that can provide solid guidance in matters of research integrity. I say this not just from personal experience (e.g., speaking to diverse groups of researchers), but from the research record itself that shows that way too many scientists -even some journal editors- lack crucial knowledge of not-so-subtle research integrity matters.

    Consider PLOS ONE’s just published analysis of research integrity issues that the journal has had to deal with, https://blogs.plos.org/everyone/2019/02/12/maintaining-high-research-integrity-standards-at-plos-one/. Its authors note the following: “Reassuringly, only a minority of issues raised to our attention involve more serious potential research misconduct (e.g. data fabrication). More often, we find that the problems arise due to issues involving researchers’ understanding of best practices in research reporting and the journal’s editorial policies. Based on our experiences, we believe that further guidance in these areas may help to address some of the issues that we encounter most frequently in research integrity cases”.

    It seems to me that an entity such as the proposed Research Integrity Advisory Board would be in perfect position to address these important guidance issues. However, the effectiveness of such a body will be rather limited if 1) it cannot acquire the highest degree of respectability and authoritative standing and 2) if it cannot achieve a wide degree of global reach. I see the latter as the real challenge and, of course, there is always the question of funding.

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