In October 2015, the government launched an enquiry into how suspected research fraud should be handled. The work of this enquiry has now been completed.
In its report New scheme to promote good practice and to manage misconduct in research, the enquiry proposes the establishment of an independent agency: the Research Misconduct Board. This should be a board-led agency, placed with another agency which will take care of its administration. The Research Misconduct Board shall consist of one chair and ten members who will investigate suspected cases of misconduct within public universities and colleges, individual educational institutions, other governmental bodies and municipalities and county councils.
Individuals should be able to report suspected misconduct in research directly to the new agency, without having to go through the head of the institution. The Research Misconduct Board shall also have the power to initiate cases where suspicion exists. The Board will decide whether the matter constitutes a case of misconduct and also who is guilty.
“The conclusions of the Board will result in a decision and not a recommendation”, says Margaretha Fahlgren, the government’s special investigator and professor of literature at Uppsala University.
Several important differences
The proposed system differs from current procedures on a number of points. Under the present system, suspicions of misconduct are reported to the head of the institution, who then decides whether, and how, the matter is to be investigated. It is not currently obligatory to refer the case to the Central Ethical Review Board’s (CEPN) expert group for misconduct in research, and the verdict of the expert group does not constitute a decision – decisions are made by the head of the educational institution.
“Because the Research Misconduct Board will make decisions, we want it to be possible for these decisions to be challenged in the courts. It is important that the system created is robust and legally certain.”
The Board will also be able to point out other shortcomings that providers of research should address such as, for example, the research environment. After the decision has been made, it is the responsibility of the research provider to inform research financiers, scientific journals and government agencies.
The research provider will also determine the consequences for the individual researcher but, regardless of actions taken, everything shall be reported back to the Research Misconduct Board.
Narrow definition for a serious problem
In order to be able to handle cases of misconduct, it is necessary to have a clear definition. The investigation team has examined how cases of misconduct are handled in other countries and have, in this regard, taken inspiration from Denmark’s definition of this concept.
The report proposes that misconduct be defined as serious deviation from good research practice in the form of fabrication, falsification or plagiarism (FFP). This can occur either intentionally or through gross negligence in the planning, execution or reporting of the research – that is, at any stage of the research.
“We have chosen a narrow definition of the concept of misconduct. This is partly so that the definition is clear, partly in order to create a predictable system for the researchers, and partly to ensure that the workload of the national body will be kept within reasonable bounds.”
Other deviations from good research practice will be investigated by the research providers themselves. According to Margaretha Fahlgren, this will also provide the opportunity to directly determine whether the matter is actually about something else, such as a conflict between two researchers, for example.
“We also want to promote the opportunity for co-workers to be provided with advice and support in matters of good research practice and deviations. Therefore, we are also advocating a system of representatives within public universities and colleges. This representative could, for example, be a trusted senior researcher to whom one could turn with questions – a system which is already in place in several other countries.”
Every year, all higher education institutions shall submit a report on all cases – both those cases that have been investigated by the institution and those handled by the agency. This will provide a greater insight into which cases have arisen and how they were handled. If the Research Misconduct Board considers that certain cases should have been handled by the Board instead of by the educational institution, a new investigation can be initiated.
“At the moment, there is a complete absence of overview or insight into the cases that have arisen. This is something we discovered when working with a survey as part of this investigation.”
Strengthen work with good research practice
The report also proposes measures to reinforce the work undertaken to promote good research practice.
“There is a need for a code of conduct for, and a coordinated approach to, good research practice. We also want the responsibility for good research practice to be legally binding, and for each individual researcher to be responsible for ensuring that the planning, execution and reporting is conducted in accordance with this. In this aspect, we have been inspired by Norway.”
The report proposes that research providers be legally bound to ensure that research is carried out in accordance with good research practice, and that researching, teaching and technical staff are continually kept informed of the applicable rules for their research activities.
“The scientists involved in the research must have sufficient knowledge of good research practice, but how this knowledge shall be applied is up to the individual research provider.”
The aim is to avoid situations where researchers make mistakes because they are not aware of something – for example, the requirement for documentation.
In order to create a consensus regarding good research practice, the report proposes that the Swedish Research Council be commissioned, in collaboration with the new Research Misconduct Board and the scientific community in general, to develop a national code of good research practice.
“Provisions and guidelines are already in existence, so there is no need to re-invent the wheel. But what is needed is greater clarity. This is an important issue that should be of concern to the entire scientific community, from the individual researcher to the heads of research institutes. Issues relating to good research practice must also be clarified in the event of international collaboration.”
No precise answers
The need for a new system to deal with suspected research fraud has been under discussion for a long time. In 2013, the Association of Swedish Higher Education (SUHF) and the Swedish Research Council proposed that the government should launch an enquiry. Since the enquiry was established in October 2015, the Macchiarini case has made the issue even more relevant.
“We are proposing a system that is effective and that is similar to those found in the countries of our Nordic neighbours. But it is a product of its time and context so the functioning of the new system will need to be reviewed once it has been up and running for a while. There is probably no such thing as a perfect system and there are no easy solutions. But we believe that our proposal increases both clarity and legal certainty”, says Margaretha Fahlgren.
At the earliest, the proposed system could be introduced in January 2019, and an evaluation would take place after five years.