Friday, April 19, 2013

The Responsible Conduct of Research

I just spent two days at the University of Aarhus helping them in drafting their policy on the Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR). I was very fortunate to be able to meet with some of the top people world-wide who are working in this area.

  • Niels Axelsen from Statens Serum Institut, Copenhagen, Denmark, who has written many articles, among them this one in Nature 
  • Melissa Anderson from the University of Minnesota who asked scientists how much they had committed scientific misconduct in the past and coauthored the "Scientists behaving badly" article in Nature.  
  • Philip Langlais from Old Dominion University, former vice-provost and consultant on setting up RCR policies 
  • Nick Steeneck from the University of Michigan, who is the Director of the Research Ethics and Integrity Program of the Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research
  • Brigitte Jockusch from the University of Braunschweig and a member of the German research funding organization DFGs "Ombud" committee for good scientific practice
  • Charlotte Haug, editor of the Norwegian Medical Journal and vice-chair of COPE, the international Committee on Publication Ethics.
After a day of talks we met with members of the Danish government and a number of people from the university to go through their proposed document. I have been suggesting for some time that all universities need such a document. It turns out to be surprisingly difficult to do, in particular because research is different between life sciences (who also have human and animal experiments), business, humanities, engineering, and the natural sciences.

It would seem to be useful for a university to have one short, global policy and then have each faculty or department work out the specific details for their own field.

It seems that there were more questions at the end of the session than at the beginning. Especially, the following seemed to be central:
  • Everyone agrees that education is important. But who will educate the students? The faculty? When will the instruction be? It seems important to instruct people on why the responsible conduct of science is important, but will people listen and learn?
  • The question of whistleblowing takes an enormous amount of thought. Can there be anonymous whistleblowers? Many may have a personal axe to grind with the accused, but there are also many correct accusations. Should it depend on the identity of the whistleblower being known? Melissa Anderson explained the interesting system that they have at her university. The university pays an outside company to run a hot-line and web-based reporting system.  People can register with any name they like, and come back and add additional information if they wish. The person evaluating the tip is then someone who is not from the university, and refers cases to the appropriate institutions. This would be a great thing to have nationally - professors willing to evaluate cases, and the possibility of submitting anonymous reports and still being able to discover what action is being taken on the case. As can be seen in the recent cases in Heidelberg and Mannheim, often the universities have been dragging their feet in responding to the accusation. This, however, is not responsible conduct. Investigations need to be swift. 
  • This leads to the question of resources. Brigitte Jockusch reports on the workload at the Ombud für die Wissenschaft - since zu Guttenberg the number of reported cases has been rapidly growing, the organization is only staffed by three professors who are still active researchers and teachers and one full-time employee. That is most certainly not enough.
  • Procedures - there was much debate on whether the investigation should start first, or the accused be informed first. There is, of course, a chance that evidence may be destroyed. The University of Aarhus is proposing an RCR Guidance counselor who does not inform the RCR board of cases, but only acts to inform potential whistleblowers of their rights and to discuss with them whether the case at hand could be considered unethical conduct. And does the RCR board only get active when there is a whistleblower? What if they learn of scientific misconduct through other channels, i.e. press reports?
  • How proactive should the RCR board be? How easy should it be to find the board? There is concern that in universities that do have such a board that the link to the web page is buried somewhere deep in the site. This has often been my experience.
  • What sanctions are possible? Who decides? Who is responsible for executing the sanctions? What is done in cases in which the accusation is in bad faith?
The university now has a lot more work to do, but it is encouraging to see them determined to set up a good policy.  In a few weeks there will be a world conference in Montreal on this topic with many of these people attending. I'm not able to attend - if any of my readers do, I'd love to extend guest blogging rights for reporting on the conference. Contact me, and I'll set you up as a co-author here!

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