Findings of serious research misconduct undermine confidence in the sector and are rightly of public interest. Once publicised, the inevitable media storm sets the scene for accusations of secrecy and institutional cover up, with calls for national intervention. Any bad apple so the argument goes, points to a failure of self-regulation, with universities accused of having a vested interest in sweeping such matters under the carpet. But is this really the case?

Firstly, such grenades are typically thrown from outside the tent, with little understanding of procedural fairness, confidentiality provisions, and enterprise agreements. Second this country has an internationally enviable and formal framework through the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research (ACRCR) and its associated Guide to Managing and Investigating Potential Breaches of the Australian Code. Under this, any allegation with a whiff of gravity on preliminary assessment goes to an external enquiry panel. And thirdly, far from covering things up, it is unequivocally in the interest of universities to both uphold and be seen to uphold the highest standards of research and research integrity.

Yet, all is not rosy. There are no national data, essential for monitoring frequency, detection and prevention of serious research misconduct – chiefly falsification fabrication and plagiarism. Although reported cases seem relatively rare at around one p.a. at our major universities, can we be sure it is not higher? And are these rising, given threats from paper mills, predatory journals, image manipulation, publish or perish career bottlenecks, and now ChatGPT?

There is the Australian Research Integrity Committee (ARIC), set up jointly by the ARC and NHMRC in 2011. ARIC may do a reasonable job within the constraints of its limited ombudsperson remit of reviewing process in response to complainants. But it rules on only  half a dozen or so complaints annually, and now finds itself the subject of an independent evaluation, to focus on its effectiveness and performance.

Investigating research misconduct is not for the faint-hearted. Challenges include access to independent experts, the need to protect whistleblowers, the adversarial interplay of legal teams, pursuing those who resign or change institution, and a reluctance of some journals to correct the public record. Scale and experience can help here, though this can be difficult for smaller institutions with only an occasional caseload.

One case of research misconduct is of course one too many, but with human nature what it is, robust institutional and oversight processes will always be necessary. Our charge is to ensure they are rigorous.  At UNSW Sydney, we invite reporting of potential breaches of the Code through a public portal, and transparently publish our results in an annual report. We also place considerable stead on mandatory Research Integrity training, with an 86 per cent awareness among researchers in a recent Springer Nature & Australian Academy of Science survey compared to the national average of 68%. As a sector we can all do better here.

Where we go next has become a doves versus hawks issue, some content with a tightened institutional hygiene model, others calling for an independent arms-length national regulatory body. Here Australia needs to be careful what it wishes for; cost and duplication aside, the few countries that have gone down the latter route have been overwhelmed with workload. Two of four guilty decisions by Sweden’s National Board for the Assessment of Research Misconduct have been legally appealed, at least one successfully. And the much criticised US Office of Research Integrity reported an average of only eigh cases of research misconduct a year over 2019-22 – admittedly only in the health and medical space, but for a population approaching 350m, that’s barely scratching the surface.

Behind the scenes, the Australian Academy of Science has been building the case for greater regulation of all publicly funded research. Any model however would need to avoid the errors made abroad; a national oversight body for instance could approve terms of reference and membership of external panels, but with organisations conducting the research still responsible for investigations of major misconduct. The community will be reassured by national data and oversight. The sector should welcome high order assurance on investigations of the highest standard. And the quality of such inquiries would benefit from access to a national database of independent domain-specific experts with knowledge of the ACRCR.

The current ARIC consultation will touch on calls for an office of research integrity, so change is rightly afoot. But given the underwhelming international experience, the potential cost of a behemoth, and Australia’s admirable existing framework, any national oversight body should necessarily be light touch, in an Australian context, and co-designed with the sector. Such a body could be de novo or arise from the existing. Whichever, it should have teeth rather than ARIC-like dentures.

Nicholas Fisk is DVC Research and Enterprise at UNSW Sydney


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