A US National Academies panel has proposed measures to help curb scientific misconduct

The US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has released a report on how to improve research integrity, which has been some four years in the making.

It says scientific misconduct should be ‘reframed’ as a problem of scientists operating within a flawed system, rather than a problem of rogue researchers working in isolation.

‘Let’s stop talking only about bad apples, and look at the barrel and the barrel-makers,’ says C. K. Gunsalus, who directs the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and served on the committee that wrote the report. ‘By understanding that people are working in an environment and are influenced by that environment, we can be more effective in addressing research misconduct.’

The report – Fostering integrity in research – notes that the research environment is changing in ways that affect efforts to foster research integrity. It points to longstanding trends, including growth in the size and scope of the research enterprise, significantly increased regulatory requirements, and a greater emphasis on industry sponsorship as well as entrepreneurial research.

We don’t have good data about the system – we don’t know what the incidence of good conduct and bad conduct is

C K Gonsalus, University of Illinois

While it endorses the established definition of research misconduct as fabrication, falsification and plagiarism, it also recommends that many of the practices that have typically been categorised as ‘questionable research practices’ – like the misleading use of statistics and a failure to retain sufficient research data – should be explicitly recognised as detrimental to research.

Noting that the problem of irreproducibility of research results has garnered increased concern in recent years, the report’s authors state that researchers, institutions, journals, and funding agencies are responsible for ensuring that published research provides sufficient information about the methods and tools used for researchers aiming to replicate the work. In addition, the National Academies panel urges funding agencies and other research sponsors to allocate sufficient resources to enable the long-term storage of datasets and computer code required to replicate published findings.

Advisory board

The report also suggests an independent, non-profit Research Integrity Advisory Board (RIAB) is set up to provide information on best practice and help handle allegations and investigates of misconduct.

Rather than having a direct role in investigations, regulation, or accreditation, the board would serve as a neutral resource that helps the research enterprise respond to challenges. Beyond sharing expertise and approaches for addressing research misconduct and detrimental practices, the RIAB could provide support and help advocate for needed change at research institutions, journals, and other stakeholders in the research enterprise.

The board would have a small permanent staff of three or four people, supplemented by fellows and consultants, with an annual budget of about $3 million (£2.34 million). RIAB’s funding would come from the regular contributions of members like major public and private research sponsors, universities and other research institutions, private industry, as well as scientific societies, and journal publishers.

‘We don’t have good data about the system – we don’t know what the incidence of good conduct and bad conduct is,’ says Gunsalus. ‘The board could spearhead such efforts.’