Research Councils UK will be able to withhold money from universities that fail to take ethical breaches seriously

Universities who do not take cases of research misconduct seriously could have their funding withdrawn. The new sanctions are set out in the revised Policy and Guidelines on Governance of Good Research Conduct, published by Research Councils UK (RCUK).

Research misconduct usually involves offences like the fabrication or falsification of data or the misrepresentation of the level of involvement of individuals. Penalties could be applied to universities or research organisations which fail to meet RCUK’s obligations for research integrity – for example, if institutions conduct incomplete or biased investigations into alleged misconduct or if their researchers have committed ‘persistent research misconduct’. Such failures could result in existing grants being revoked, applications getting rejected ‘for any period of time, including indefinitely’ or even retrospectively clawing back funding from the institution.

There has been a steady rise in scientific misconduct cases, with approximately one in 10,000 papers retracted because of misconduct. In 2010, UK-based journal Acta Crystallographica Section E was forced to retract dozens of papers describing over 70 crystal structures found to have been fabricated by Chinese researchers.

Ethical behaviour by peer reviewers is also discussed in the new policy. Peer reviewers of grant applications and papers are warned against breaches of confidentiality, misappropriation of the contents of documents and failures to speak up about conflicts of interest or when they are not expert enough to complete a review. The potential for misconduct by peer reviewers is a common worry for researchers and famous cases highlight that bad practice can happen.

The addition of penalties to the original RCUK policy published in 2009 have come in response to criticisms by the House of Commons science and technology committee.

James Parry, chief executive of the independent UK Research Integrity Office welcomes the revised guidance and sees the development as an important step in the journey towards sustaining and enhancing integrity in UK research. ‘Organisations which fund research must be able to satisfy themselves that those funds are used appropriately, checking this through clear and proportionate means,’ he says.

RCUK’s new policy is clear on the onus on institutions to train and support their researchers and also protect whistleblowers in research misconduct cases. Rick Rylance, chair of RCUK, said: ‘A commitment to good research conduct lies at the heart of an effective research system. High standards of integrity underpin the quality and reliability of research outcomes and of the decisions we make about funding.’