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Research misconduct: how universities are addressing the issue

Jamie Arrowsmith

Jamie Arrowsmith

Programme Manager
Universities UK

Earlier this week, the BBC reported that “fake research” was a problem, the extent of which was being seriously underreported by universities. Beyond the sensational headline – conflating allegations of research misconduct (which has a broad definition) with the fabrication of research findings (one part of what might constitute misconduct) is unhelpful and misleading – it raised some important issues.

The UK is rightly renowned for its world class science and research base and, as the 6,000 case studies collected as part of the last Research Excellence Framework exercise demonstrate, this research has real world impact. Every day, the work done within our universities is helping to improve lives, and is focussed on conquering some of the greatest challenges facing society.

However, sometimes mistakes are made and standards fall short of what is expected. The quality of research may be undermined by genuine errors and poor practices, which processes such as peer review and training and support for researchers can help to mitigate. Occasionally, research findings can be called in to question for more fundamental reasons, such as fabrication of results. These are serious issues that – as the recent inquiry into research integrity conducted by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee makes clear – are being considered at the very highest of levels.

Being able to have confidence in research matters greatly. The impact that research has is dependent on public support and public trust – and, indeed, public money. This brings with it clear and unambiguous responsibilities on the part of all partners in the science and research ecosystem – responsibilities for government and funders, for universities and other research organisations, and from researchers themselves.

As the report identified, there is no single approach to monitoring and reporting allegations of misconduct. Funders currently require institutions to report allegations and upheld complaints, but this data is (at present) fragmented and sometimes a little confusing. As a community, we need to get better at reporting on the scale of such misconduct in an open and transparent manner.

However, as Stephen Metcalf MP noted in the BBC report, the scale of misconduct needs to be put in context of the huge amount of research conducted in the UK – and the overwhelmingly positive reputation we have on a truly global scale. And the report failed to properly recognise the efforts that universities, funders and government have committed to taking to address the very problems described in the report.

These issues are very much on the agenda of all stakeholders in UK science and research, and have been for some time. Only last week, Research Councils UK issued new guidance on handling allegations of research misconduct that helps bring greater clarity and consistency to their expectations as the UK’s primary funder of research.

In 2012, Universities UK, research and national funding councils, the Wellcome Trust and the government developed the Concordat to support research integrity. This set out – for the first time – a coordinated national policy statement on what different stakeholders need to do to help promote good research practice, and the responsibilities of each party when it comes to dealing with allegations of misconduct. And in a progress report published last year, Universities UK called for institutions to take a more proactive and open approach to reporting data on allegations of misconduct as part of an annual statement that should be made public.

No system is perfect, and mistakes will be made. But we need to ensure that our system can respond effectively when allegations of research misconduct arise; that the processes in place are robust and transparent, and follow best practice (such as those set out by the advisory body, the UK Research Integrity Office); and that, importantly, there is better reporting of the outcomes of investigations. And we do need to do more to communicate how we are meeting these challenges to the public, both in our efforts to promote and support good research practice and to deal with misconduct.

There is always more that can be done – but we should recognise and celebrate the steps that the research community is already taking to meet these challenges.

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Rose Bronwen
Rose Bronwen says:
30 March 2017 at 17:06

Thanks for this beautiful blog