What to do about research misconduct (even if no-one knows what it exactly is)

New rules are on the way

A learned reader points to rumblings among researchers as peak bodies prepare an update of the 2007 edition of the responsible conduct of research code.  Submissions responding to a draft closed at the end of February and the absence of a definition of misconduct is said to upset some.

The authors are

The Australian Research Council, the National Health and Medical Research Council and Universities Australia are sponsoring the project which is being managed by a committee chaired by University of Tasmania provost Mike Calford and includes Mike Brooks (DVC R UniAdelaide), Andrew Davidson (Murdoch Children’s Research Institute), Toni Makkai  (former ANU dean of arts), Philip Mitchell (head of the school of psychiatry at UNSW), Janice Reid (former VC, WSU), Paul Taylor (director, research integrity RMIT), Mandy Thomas (dean, creative industries QUT) and Karolyn White (director, research integrity, Macquarie U).  The new code is expected to apply in the second half of the year.

Identifying misconduct, or not

The  2007 edition describes research misconduct, at length, as including;

“fabrication, falsification, plagiarism or deception in proposing, carrying out or reporting the results of research, and failure to declare or manage a serious conflict of interest. It includes avoidable failure to follow research proposals as approved by a research ethics committee … It also includes the wilful concealment or facilitation of research misconduct by others. Repeated or continuing breaches of this code may also constitute research misconduct. … Research misconduct does not include honest differences in judgment in management of the research project, and may not include honest errors that are minor or unintentional.”

But the update doesn’t describe misconduct at all. According to the committee they took their lead from a Canadian inquiry and decided it was all too hard.

“The decision to not include a definition of research misconduct was based on the fact that there is no internationally agreed definition of research misconduct, and that the definition in the current code has been problematic in its application to an investigation outcome and findings, particularly in relation to enterprise agreements and current approaches to the management of behaviours that may require corrective action.”

It sounds like US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s judgement in a trial involving a obscenity in a film. While he could not define it, “I know it when I see it.”

No to independent over-sight

So why not establish an independent tribunal to address allegations of misconduct? Some suggest that funding agencies can investigate how their money is spent and the police can intervene. And others just want misconduct off the agenda, basically because, as with defining it, proving it is just too hard.  As the 2007 misconduct policy explained why it did not establish an independent authority; “there is much to recommend such a body but many steps are required to create it, and complex issues in the Australian constitutional and other legal environments must first be addressed.” They haven’t been and it seems they won’t be in the new edition of the code, which dismisses the idea of a disciplinary tribunal. “any disciplinary action taken as a result of a finding of breach of the code should be dealt with appropriately by the employing institution.”

Gosh, thanks

So, it is left university research managements, and ultimately the courts to decide what it constitutes misconduct, and even harder, what to do about it.


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