The long-awaited report on the peak research agencies’ integrity committee is still awaited, but the case for change is made by a report on what the existing body did last year – it wasn’t much.
The Australian Research Integrity Committee has recently posted a second-ever annual report for 2021-’22, a decade since the committee was created, as a creature of the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council.
ARIC can review research institutions inquiries into integrity issues in cases of complaints regarding procedural fairness and proper process.
Last year the Committee had 11 live cases and completed three reviews, variously finding institutions, should have another go at an investigation, call in an independent panel, improve processes and provide information on appeals. In no cases did ARIC conclude that no action was needed.
It sets out eight issues identified in its reviews of institutions’ inquiries, including conflicts of interests, overlooking/ignoring parts of complaints, timeliness and a lack of objectivity in investigation; “some complainants can be seen as difficult to deal with but may still have a valid complaint.”
ARIC states, “It is important that the Australian public can have faith in research outcomes and particularly in research conducted with public funds.”
With institutions investigated being anonymous in the report, the retention of public faith does not appear assured. Particularly given suggestions that junior staff fear reports of research misconduct will not be acted on (Future Campus June 20) and the Retraction Watch website reporting that 50 papers with authors at Australian institutions were pulled by publishers after June 2020 (Future Campus July 26). As Adrian Barnett (QUT) and colleagues report, in an investigation of research integrity practises, they found “multiple institutions where we found it difficult to find anything about research integrity and other institutions where the contact about research integrity was a generic email or generic online form” (Campus Morning Mail May 9).
Policing research integrity is divisive – advocates of transparency favour an independent regulator resourced for long and complex disputes while university managements generally prefer keeping breaches of the rules under wraps and dealing with them internally.
Nicholas Fisk (UNSW) suggests a “national oversight body for instance could approve terms of reference and membership of external panels, but with organisations conducting the research still responsible for investigations of major misconduct.”
Whatever the model, the need seems to be for a regulator to do more than ARIC – and to do it publicly.