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How to Avoid Research Misconduct with Nicole Palmer, Kent University

Nicole Palmer, Research Ethics & Governance Officer at University of Kent shares her thoughts on how to ensure research integrity and prevent misconduct in Higher Education.

How would you define misconduct in research?

Research misconduct can be viewed as a failure in the integrity of research. It can range from serious research fraud to other questionable research practices that may never come to light.  However, it is important to distinguish honest error and honest differences of interpretation and judgement, from negligent acts (for example, mistakes resulting from sloppy experimentation or poor scholarship), and intentional acts and misrepresentation.

The Concordat to Support Research Integrity (2012) describes research misconduct as “behaviour or actions that fall short of the standards of ethics, research and scholarship required to ensure that the integrity of research is upheld”.  The three main definitions for research misconduct included in the Concordat, fabrication, falsification and plagiarism, are consistent across the majority of codes of practice.

What do you think are the biggest consequences of misconduct for the research community?

Research misconduct and questionable research practices have a number of consequences, including lack of reproducibility, which has been termed a crisis in science’s quality control system, and skewing the research base, due in part to publication bias leading to withholding of negative results.

The social cost of questionable research practices or research misconduct can be significant, including a reduction in the number of scientific breakthroughs in the last few decades, despite increasing public funding for research.

However, the main consequence for the research community is a loss of public trust in researchers and the research enterprise.  This can lead to fewer people willing to take part in research and a lack of support for public research funding.

What steps need to be taken, nationally and inside institutions, to prevent cases of misconduct from happening?

A number of recommendations to improve research integrity were made by the Science and Technology Committee when it undertook its inquiry into the issue last year.  These include creating a healthy ‘research culture’ with institutional leadership committed to ethical conduct and leading by example.  A mentorship scheme for junior staff members and appropriate training can also help to foster a suitable research culture

Established institutional policies and procedures for the investigation of allegations of research misconduct are another important element of a healthy research culture.  Administrators and designated officials must ensure institutional consistency in allegation assessment and review, and complainants and respondents must be adequately protected and supported through the process.  A whistle blowing process can encourage reporting of questionable research practices and should be widely publicised.

Initiatives such as ‘open science’, that is, making the underlying data accessible to enhance the reproducibility of published research, and better reporting of methods, can also help to support research integrity.  As can requirements introduced by journal editors for authors to specify details of the ethical implications of their research, along with confirmation that the study has undergone research ethics review.

What are the main issues to take into consideration while investigating misconduct?

The Concordat to Support Research Integrity sets out that the primary responsibility for investigating allegations of misconduct rests with the employers of the researchers involved.  Institutions must have a published policy and procedure that all staff and students are made aware of, and that complements other institutional policies and regulations such as those on grant and contract administration, and conflict of interest.

The first issue to clarify is whether any immediate action is needed, for example, to safeguard participants.  Once that is resolved, the institutional procedure should be followed to carry out an investigation to conclude whether the allegation is upheld in full, in part, or not.  There should be consistent assessment of allegations; measures to ensure that facts, not personalities drive the process; and appropriate allocation of tasks to avoid bias and conflicts of interest.

Investigations must be thorough, fair and timely, and all parties should be kept up-to-date with progress.  Institutions must ensure that whistleblowers suffer no detriment for making allegations in good faith.  Likewise, where an allegation is not upheld, institutions must ensure that the respondent’s reputation is not damaged in any way.

Finally, consideration must be given to conditions of grant, and other legal, professional and statutory obligations, which may require funders and/or publishers to be informed of investigations.