Australia needs an office for research integrity

| February 6, 2022

The Swedish government established a national Research Misconduct Board in 2020, after concluding institutions couldn’t be trusted to investigate allegations of serious research misconduct themselves. This followed botched investigations into the conduct of surgeon Paolo Macchiarini, who transplanted experimental artificial tracheas into 20 patients, 17 of whom later died. His employer, the Karolinska Institute, had initially cleared him. Later independent investigations found he had committed misconduct.

Ultimately, both the vice chancellor and dean of research at the institute lost their jobs. The secretary-general of the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska, which issues the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, also resigned. The government dismissed the entire university board. But Macchiarini’s patients paid the heaviest price.

Sweden is just the most recent of more than 20 European nations that have national offices for research integrity. So do the UK, US, Canada, Japan and China. Australia, which still lacks an Office for Research Integrity, is being left behind.

Multiple recent reports of allegations of research fraud in Australia show the urgent need for an independent national regulator.

line of cyclists competing in a race
Australia has an agency to safeguard sport against cheats like Lance Armstrong, but no national watchdog to protect the integrity of research. 

How does Australia handle research misconduct?

Australia’s system for handling allegations of research misconduct resembles the one Sweden abandoned. We persist with a self-regulation model. Yet royal commission after royal commission has shown self-regulation does not work in the financial sector, with institutions that care for children, or for police forces.

Research in Australia funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) or the Australian Research Council (ARC) must comply with the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research.

The 2007 version of this code required independent, multi-person inquiry panels to handle allegations of serious misconduct. Findings were to be made public. Appeals could be made if new evidence arose.

In 2018 the code was changed. The changes meant:

  • a single person from the same institution can now carry out inquiries
  • secrecy must be maximised, with no requirement for public reports
  • appeals can only be considered based on process and not on evidence, substance or merit.

One stunning change to the code – worthy of the political satire Yes Minister – was to make the term “research misconduct” optional. Institutions can now make up their own definition or dispense with the term entirely – and thus be rendered free of research misconduct in perpetuity!

Scientists are human, and there will be ones who do the wrong thing, just as there are dishonest individuals in all professions. And Australian scientists are no more honest or dishonest than those in other countries. However, we rarely hear of cases of research misconduct, because the reflex action of institutions is to try to protect their reputations by covering things up.

What needs to be done?

What institutions should do instead is enhance their reputations by handling cases rigorously, fairly and openly. At the 2010 World Conference on Research Integrity, a panel member was asked if she would ever consider joining a university that had had a case of research misconduct. The eminent expert said she would never join a university that had not had a case, because that meant they were either ignoring cases, or were not doing enough research.

We need to recognise and applaud the whistle-blowers who report research misconduct and those institutions that do take a rigorous stand. The University of Queensland and QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute have set the example in recent cases. But their tasks would be much easier if they could refer cases to an independent national Office for Research Integrity.

Australia needs an Office for Research Integrity to handle cases in all kinds of scholarly practice, not just in biomedical research, but also in physics, engineering and the humanities. In his comprehensive book Scholarly Misconduct: Law, Regulation and Practice, Ian Freckelton QC concluded:

“What has become clear is that the maladies afflicting scholarship cannot be dealt with wholly internally within universities and research bodies […] What is required is the creation by government of external bodies.

“Assertions that [allegations of research misconduct and conflict of interest] can be dealt with adequately by internal investigations are not credible given what has occurred in the recent past. Legal and health professions are no longer permitted in many countries to self-regulate. External, independent decision-making is necessary for community confidence.”

Take the best from overseas

There is no need for Australia to re-invent the wheel. We should take the best from the various offices for research integrity and ombudsmen overseas, and construct the very best office here in Australia. This office would:

  • allow whistle-blowers to be heard
  • have no conflicts of interest
  • be able to draw on the necessary experience and specialist expertise
  • be able to act rapidly and transparently.

What is unusual about the call for such a watchdog in Australia is that it is coming from the researchers themselves. They range from whistle-blowers who have direct experience, early career researchers who struggle to get funded, to established scientists such as those in the Australian Academy of Science who are now leading the push.

Sport Integrity Australia manages misconduct in sport. We now need bipartisan support for an Australian Office for Research Integrity to handle the Lance Armstrongs of Australian research.

This article was published by The Conversation.