The Swedish government established a National Research Misconduct Committee in 2020, after concluding that institutions could not 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, initially cleared him. Subsequent independent investigations revealed that he had been at fault.
Ultimately, the institute‘s vice-chancellor and dean of research lost their jobs. The secretary general of the Karolinska Nobel Assembly, which awards the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, has also resigned. The government sacked the entire board of the university. But Macchiarini’s patients paid the heaviest price.
Sweden is only the newest of more than 20 European countries that have national offices for research integrity. The same is true for the UK, US, Canada, Japan and China. Australia, which still does not have an Office for Research Integrity, is left behind.
Several recent reports of research fraud allegations in Australia show the urgent need for an independent national regulator.
How does Australia deal with research misconduct?
Australia’s system for dealing with allegations of research misconduct resembles the one Sweden abandoned. We persist with a model of self-regulation. Yet, royal commission after royal commission, self-regulation does not work in the financial sector, with institutions that care for children or with police forces.
Read more: ‘There’s a problem’: Australia’s top scientist Alan Finkel pushes to stamp out bad science
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 boards of inquiry to deal with allegations of gross misconduct. The findings were to be made public. Appeals could be made if new evidence comes to light.
In 2018, the code was changed. The changes meant:
- only one person from the same establishment can now carry out surveys
- secrecy should be maximized, with no requirement for public reporting
- appeals can only be considered on the basis of process and not on evidence, merits or merits.
A stunning change to the code – worthy of Yes Minister political satire – was to make the term “research misconduct” optional. Institutions can now create their own definition or dispense with the term altogether – and thus be free from research misconduct in perpetuity!
Scientists are human, and there will be some who will 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 about cases of misconduct in research, because the reflex of institutions is to try to protect their reputation by covering things up.
What needs to be done?
What institutions should do instead is improve their reputation by handling cases with rigour, fairness and openness. At the 2010 Global Research Integrity Conference, a panel member was asked if she would ever consider joining a university that had had a case of research misconduct. The leading expert said she would never join a university that had no cases because it meant she was ignoring the cases or not doing enough research.
We need to recognize and applaud whistleblowers who report research misconduct and institutions that take a strong stance. The University of Queensland and the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute have led the way in recent cases. But their task 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 across all kinds of academic 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 diseases that afflict research cannot be addressed entirely in-house within universities and research organizations. […] What is needed is the creation by the government of external agencies.
“The assertions that [allegations of research misconduct and conflict of interest] can be adequately addressed by internal investigations are not credible given what has happened in the recent past. The legal and health professions are no longer allowed in many countries to self-regulate. External and independent decision-making is necessary for community trust.
Read more: Research fraud: the temptation to lie – and the challenges of regulation
Take the best from abroad
Australia does not need to reinvent the wheel. We should make the most of the various research integrity offices and ombudspersons overseas, and build the best office here in Australia. This office:
- allow whistleblowers to be heard
- have no conflicts of interest
- be able to rely on the necessary experience and expertise
- be able to act quickly and transparently.
What is unusual about the call for such a watchdog in Australia is that it comes from the researchers themselves. They range from whistleblowers who have direct experience, early-career researchers struggling to secure funding, to established scientists such as those at the Australian Academy of Sciences who are now leading the push.
Sport Integrity Australia manages misconduct in sport. We now need bipartisan support for an Australian Research Integrity Office to manage the Lance Armstrongs of Australian Research.