Inquiry into the handling of research misconduct

We must distinguish fraud from carelessness

Svenska 2016-05-25

There is neither a consistent definition nor a uniform handling of misconduct in research at Swedish higher education institutions today. In many situations it is more a case of carelessness than of deliberate fraud, but the distinction is unclear. There is currently an ongoing inquiry aimed at untangling the terms and proposing concrete changes to the system.

There has been a storm raging in the research world recently. The year began with the high profile SVT documentary Experimenten on the researcher and surgeon Paolo Macchiarini. Shortly thereafter, several other cases of misconduct in research surfaced at different higher education institutions around the country.

The number of cases received by the expert group for misconduct at the Central Ethical Review Board (CEPN) has so far this year increased significantly. Moreover, there is a total of not less than 14 ongoing inquiries aimed at both reviewing what happened in connection with the Macchiarini case and preventing similar incidents in the future.

The inquiry Organisation for investigations into misconduct in research, which the government appointed in October 2015 and which Curie has reported on previously, has become even more urgent. A report on this will be presented in the end of November 2016.

As part of the inquiry, all Swedish universities and university colleges have been asked to answer a questionnaire on how they handle suspected fraud and any cases that have occurred. Some 40 responses have been received, says Margaretha Fahlgren, special investigator and professor of literature at Uppsala University.

“The situation may vary, in terms of whether there are expert groups and what these look like. We need a greater national consensus regarding the terms and the handling.”

Even today there is no consistent definition of what misconduct in research really entails.

Consistency is needed

At present, universities and university colleges individually handle suspected cases of misconduct in research. A case usually begins with a report from a researcher, after which all persons involved are contacted. Then the Vice-Chancellor makes an assessment of how the matter should be handled and whether the external expert group at the Central Ethical Review Board (CEPN) should be consulted. In the end, it is the Vice-Chancellor who makes decisions on whether misconduct in research has occurred.

Margaretha Fahlgren says that the questionnaire has been good to get an overview of which cases have occurred. There are not that many serious cases, but there is still no overview of the reports submitted to the universities in the past five years.

According to her, the distinction between deliberate misconduct and negligence or bad research is facilitated by a clear definition. In this respect, the universities and collegial discussions, i.e. reviewing each other, play a major role. Good documentation is also needed to be able to go back and detect errors.

“To be able to distinguish bad research from intentional misconduct, you must be able to work systematically.”

Several changes

The inquiry’s expert group consists of ten people. The group includes ethicists and lawyers, as well as representatives of various higher education institutions, public authorities and the government. They are currently working on various proposals for changes.

Part of the work involves looking at how other countries deal with misconduct in research and considering different aspects of the problem. The group has begun writing a draft which was recently presented at an initial hearing. The hearing gave the expert group the opportunity to hear the views of the participants prior to further work.

Thus far, Margaretha Fahlgren cannot disclose what changes are concerned or exactly how they might improve the Swedish system. But there will be changes.

“We are striving for a model with national consistency in definition and management. The directives suggest that we should consider an independent body, which could work in different ways. We are looking at different models right now to think along these lines.”

One thing that several different models have in common is that they define misconduct as fabrication, falsification and plagiarism (FFP).”

View things in context

A researcher usually does not work alone, but rather is part of a research environment. Therefore, one needs to take into account the structure at universities and university colleges in order to clarify how the misconduct has become possible and why, as in Macchiarini case, some people are not stopped in time.

The inquiry cannot change the system but can ensure that there are coherent frameworks and rules to relate to in terms of misconduct in research.

“The researchers are part of a system with publication requirements and competition. There is research to show that the increase in the publishing rush and the pressure to seek funding can play an important role in this context.”

The legal rights for both the person reporting misconduct and the person being reported is another aspect of the inquiry. The timeline is also important; it should preferably involve short investigation times where the processing of cases begins promptly and does not drag on.

Another question is what will happen if a researcher gets convicted of misconduct. Today, there is no provisions on whether the researcher must be dismissed or if the funding is to be withdrawn.

No quick fix

Different countries have different approaches and procedures for handling misconduct in research. Usually it is in connection with a scandal that one realises that the existing directives need to be changed.

All models have advantages and disadvantages, and no models provide answers to all questions, emphasises Margaretha Fahlgren.

“Unfortunately, there are no simple solutions. You choose a path and make changes that you try for a number of years and then evaluate.”

Preference for an independent body

The expert group for misconduct at the Central Ethical Review Board (CEPN) was established in 2010 and had, up until the Macchiarini case, received nine cases. However, that figure has risen markedly. Just this year there have been four new cases and the administrative director Jörgen Svidén says that many more are coming.

He would rather see an independent body handle investigations of misconduct in research than the universities themselves.

“But it also means that such a body needs a different mandate in the future.”

Jörgen Svidén also emphasises the need for a unified definition of what misconduct in research is. Moreover, it would be best to introduce a system with the possibility to appeal.

“The decisions taken are rarely a solution, they are based on the information available and on slightly different approaches. A reviewing system is always best. It becomes a sort of second opinion.”

For those who investigate misconduct, it is extremely important to have both access to raw data and the competence to evaluate them.

“The risk of being discovered must be so great that it is not worth cheating,” says Jörgen Svidén.

Text: Natalie von der Lehr
Photo: depositphotos