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Universities failing to investigate research malpractice prompts creation of new watchdog

The Commons Science and Technology Committee (CSTC) have revealed that many universities are failing to disclose information regarding research malpractice. The committee has since suggested the formation of a new independent body to regulate universities.

Through an inquiry, MPs asked institutions if they published an annual summary of internal research misconduct investigations, which is required by the Concordat to Support Research Integrity established in 2013.

Compliance to the concordat, a prerequisite for universities to receive funding and public grants, has since been violated. 58% of the 136 universities that were inquired had published summaries, 17% “intended to do so soon”, and 25% failed to report cases of incorrect and unethical research practices.

In a report published on 11 July 2018, the committee concluded that “meaningful sanctions have never been deployed” after the concordat was transgressed, which has “made it difficult to determine the full scale of research misconduct in the UK”.

They explained that universities were “not being sufficiently diligent in checking references when hiring”, or are “using non-disclosure agreements to keep misconduct quiet”, which “effectively makes the institution complicit in future misconduct by that individual”.

Norman Lamb, chair of the CSTC, attributed universities’ reluctance to investigate and report misconduct to the pressure that researchers undergo, causing them to cut corners and publish “impressive” results.

Lamb emphasised the need for “a way of verifying that universities are following their own procedures and investigating misconduct properly”, in order to prevent a “knee-jerk reaction towards inappropriate regulation in response to the next big research misconduct scandal”.

He said: “It raises concerns when universities report zero investigations year after year, particularly when they do a lot of research. It’s not really credible to imagine nothing ever goes wrong.

“Universities should view transparency and increased reporting of misconduct as a positive sign that wrongdoing is being spotted and taken seriously, rather than as a threat to the university’s reputation.

“Institutions with track records have been destroyed by scandals and crises. The danger is that something comes along out of the blue that completely undermines public trust. Failing to address this will fuel suspicions that allegations are swept under the carpet.

“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.”

The CSTC cited multiple cases of research misconduct at several institutions in their report. Paolo Macchiarini, a visiting professor at the Karonlinska Institute, was hailed for transplanting the world’s first synthetic windpipes into patients, but was later dismissed for scientific and clinical misconduct after it was found he had exaggerated his success. All but one of his patients have died, and the scandal led the institute’s vice-chancellor, Anders Hamsten, to resign.

Professor David Latchman, the Master of Birbeck at the University of London, has been investigated for research misconduct several times. A recent formal investigation by University College London (UCL) accused the geneticist of “recklessness” for allowing research fraud to happen on his watch at the Institute of Child Health at UCL. He has since retracted and corrected several multiple research papers after accusations from a whistleblower.

Since the report was published, MPs have called for the creation of a “national research integrity committee”, which verifies whether institutions have followed appropriate investigation processes, similar to establishments in Australia and Canada.

The independent watchdog will publish annual reports on the state of research integrity in the UK, including information on retractions, misconduct investigation and their outcomes, and improvements that were undertaken.

The data will be sourced by “university narrative statements and…screening-phase investigations” that the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the government’s main research funding body, currently receives.

The research integrity committee will also have the authority to recommend the withdrawal or reclamation of research funds to the UKRI, in case of insufficient misconduct inquiries by universities.

In addition to an independent watchdog, MPs suggested for the strengthening of the Research Integrity Concordat to render annual reporting a norm, better protection for whistleblowers, more transparent investigations, and the appointment of experts in investigation panels to ensure universities do not conceal misconduct.

A spokesman for the UKRI said “careful consideration” was given to the report’s recommendations, since “creating a strong and responsible culture is crucial to enable the best research and innovation and to gain and maintain public trust”.

He said: “We are committed to working with stakeholders, both in the UK and internationally, to use our position as the UK’s largest public sector funder of research and innovation to lead positive behavioural change.”

The watchdog will be placed with the UKRI, since the UK Research Integrity Office, an independent advisory charity, had declined to take on the watchdog function, according to Simon Kolstoe, a senior fellow in the School of Biological Sciences and university ethics adviser at the University of Portsmouth.

He argued that cooperating with the UKRI was not ideal, since “it is very unlikely to have any influence over the commercial sector”, which “requires the most scrutiny”.

He said: “It struck me during the inquiry that there was too much focus on research funding that comes from government finances, and little worry about the vast majority of research that comes from other funding.”

Although MPs have stated that they “recognise the importance of university autonomy and resistance to the creation of a powerful regulator”, research-intensive Russell Group universities have contended that “compliance with rules can be counterproductive, as it may encourage people to do the minimum…as opposed to incentivising people to strive to improve research behaviours and practices”.

Experts have also resisted the creation of a new regulator, as it “would offer a solution to only part of the problem”. John Hardy, chair in molecular biology of neurological disease at UCL, noted that “policing research integrity” may “create a layer of costly bureaucracy”.

However, he claimed that creating an independent committee would be advantageous in that “integrity issues could be separated…from the employment issues”, making the investigation process “less torturous”.

Jim Smith, director of science at the Wellcome Trust, told Times Higher Education that the watchdog would “put the subject [of misconduct] into context and to identify the extent of the problem”.

He added that failure to reproduce experiments could result from various reasons, which is why it was “important to distinguish between them” and research misconduct, in order to “assuage public concern”.

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