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U.K. Looks for Way Through Misconduct Maze

13 January 2012 5:30 pm
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LONDON—Scientific misconduct is "alive and well" in the United Kingdom, according to around 30 ethicists, researchers, journal editors, advocates, and funders attending a meeting on that topic sponsored by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) and the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), an organization of journal editors and publishers, here yesterday. Nevertheless, after hearing other countries' experiences with their regulatory systems and the problems faced by universities, an informal vote at the end of the meeting overwhelmingly rejected the idea of having a central government regulator of research integrity in the United Kingdom.

The United Kingdom currently has no unified procedure for dealing with research misconduct. The idea of a central regulator was first floated in the 1990s and rejected. In a July 2011 report, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee called for a single, central body responsible for ensuring research integrity—an idea subsequently rejected by the government. Graeme Catto, former chair of the General Medical Council (the body responsible for investigating medical fraud), calls the idea of a central regulator "misguided" because it would allow universities and employers to duck responsibility for their researchers' actions.

The only national body the United Kingdom has right now is an independent organization called the U.K. Research Integrity Office (UKRIO), funded by the research councils. UKRIO provides advice to universities on investigating and dealing with alleged misconduct as an ombudsman service. Although the organization has been heavily criticized in the past for its lack of teeth, "we don't want regulatory powers," says UKRIO head James Parry. "Countries have gone down the regulatory route and it's no panacea." What is clear, he says, is that the same issues crop up in every nation: the difference is how they deal with them.

The meeting heard stories of misconduct from several other countries, illustrating how tangled the problems of dealing with misconduct at both national and university levels can be. Sweden's National Research Council (NRC) would partner with universities to investigate alleged misconduct. But in the most recent case in 2010, NRC acted as both judge and executioner, retracting the grant of a researcher at the Karolinska Institute after finding widespread misconduct in her lab; on the basis of their findings, her new employer, Gothenburg University, fired her. The fraud involved electronic files deliberately planted in a fax machine in order to mislead investigators, among other evidence that required long and expensive forensic investigation. Clara Gumpert, dean of research education at Karolinska, calls it "an extreme case that visualized the problems" of the complexity that arises when "people are fighting for their professional careers." Further complicating the issue, a new NRC dean reversed the decision in 2011, leading to the researcher being rehired and her grants reinstated. NRC declared on 9 January this year that there would be no new investigation. In the meantime, a new Central Ethical Violations Board was set up in 2010 and is currently investigating its first three cases

In the United States, the Obama Administration instituted a requirement for each agency to have a research integrity process but these vary wildly, says Nicholas Steneck, who directs a research integrity program at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. The National Science Foundation, for instance, investigates misconduct itself, whereas the Office of Research Integrity in the Department of Health and Human Services can only provide oversight of universities' investigations. Even the definition of research misconduct varies between agencies. Asked for advice to the United Kingdom by BMJ editor and meeting convenor Fiona Godlee, Steneck said that funding agencies are key players and need to have teeth. Institutions, he says, are not active in investigating allegations if there are no consequences. COPE head Elizabeth Wager echoed this view in her introductory talk, recounting instances of universities "not cooperating with journals and failing to investigate research misconduct properly."

On top of that, many feel that leaving institutions responsible for investigating and reporting misconduct is letting the fox guard the chicken coop when universities themselves are complicit in misconduct. Universities and hospitals have a vested interest in maintaining their image, and, adds medical researcher Aubrey Blumsohn, formerly of the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, can have a conflict of interest if they themselves have signed deals with companies. The focus on setting up a body to look at alleged misconduct, Blumsohn believes, is wrong. If numerous researchers are prepared to put their names on a paper prepared by a pharmaceutical company, without having seen the data, the scientific community needs to have an open discussion on whether that's behaviour they'll accept. What it doesn't need is "a binary thing where a formal body decides whether an individual fiddled results." According to some at the meeting, students are sometimes told they can't graduate without having produced positive results in their research, or producing the kind of data that their funders expect.

In an effort to get all the players onboard, the bodies representing the research councils and universities, and other organizations are nearing the completion of a much-delayed "concordat" on investigating research misconduct, due to be released in March or April of this year. Employers of researchers will be encouraged to sign up to it. "We are not for a minute suggesting [the concordat] is going to solve all this," says Christopher Hale of Universities UK. But the concordat will add another nationally recognized document to those formulated by UKRIO and the integrity code that universities are required to agree to before getting research council funding. Its formulators hope it will help ease investigations involving multiple institutions and collaborations.

Something all can agree on, however, is that misconduct in the United Kingdom, particularly in the area of medical research, is an endemic problem: An informal survey released by BMJ at the meeting showed that out of 2700 responses by BMJ subscribers, 13% of medical and academic researchers had witnessed misconduct and 6% were aware of possible research misconduct at their institution that hadn't been properly investigated. It's a "time bomb," according to former Member of Parliament Evan Harris. "It only takes one high profile case where patients have suffered for the whole of U.K. research to be put under the spotlight," he said.

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