A government report has said that the oversight of UK research integrity is 'unsatisfactory'

A UK government report claims that the oversight of research integrity is ’unsatisfactory’. It recommends that an independent regulator be set up to oversee integrity. The advice has been poorly received by some scientists who say there is no appetite among the research community for such a body.  

The report, which considers all aspects of the peer review system, was published yesterday by the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee. It acknowledges that the standard of research in the UK is excellent, but insists that steps need to be taken to avoid repeats of scandals like the Andrew Wakefield MMR debacle. Andrew Miller MP, who chaired the committee, says these rare instances are enough to warrant taking action. ’We’re not dealing with a rotten system,’ he says, ’we’re dealing with the occasional rotten apple and we need the system itself to say, "How do we protect ourselves from that?"’


Source: © Anthony Devlin/PA

A report recommends the creation of an independent body to oversee research integrity to avoid repeats of the Andrew Wakefield MMR controversy

The government should publish a formal response to the report in the next 60 working days, but Miller says the committee are ’more interested in stimulating a debate than placing demands on either employers, research institutes or the government’.

The committee also recommended that one staff member at each research institution be responsible for ensuring consistently high levels of research integrity. The proposed regulator would have powers to ask for an account from researchers in the event of misconduct and, in the absence of satisfactory explanations, to make a public comment.

In the US, a regulator of this sort - the Office of Research Integrity - already exists. It has federal powers to hold researchers to account. However, the report identifies a feeling among scientists that a UK counterpart should be less formidable. ’If we can avoid getting into a heavy-handed regulatory framework, most of us would prefer to see if we could do it in another way’ said Adrian Smith from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

The Medical Schools Council told the committee that the current peer review system, which scientists contribute to on top of their own research, ’places an excessive burden on reviewers’. The committee considered that this burden should be better recognised. Publishers should take a key role in this by putting in place procedures to keep records of good reviewers. Awards for consistently good reviewers and letters of endorsement from publishers are also to be encouraged.

In an effort to try and reduce the burden of reviewing, the committee considered that innovative approaches to peer review should be encouraged. For example, publishers could take responsibility for ensuring that all recommended changes are made after an initial review, instead of carrying out two or three rounds of peer review. New media approaches, such as pre-print servers and online critiques from the wider research community would also help to deliver higher levels of scrutiny, while reducing the burden on regular reviewers.

Overall, the committee said that despite the many criticisms of peer review it is not something that can be dispensed with. Instead, it indicates that the research community should focus on implementing the simple measures outlined within it, to make the system as fair as possible.

Josh Howgego