Keeping researchers honest: how Sweden does much and Aus agencies don’t

The Australian Research Council has quietly released its updated research integrity policy and the role of the Australian Research Integrity Committee, which covers both the Australian Research Council and National Health and Medical Research Council.

There is not much in it that will please advocates of a national agency oversighting research integrity.

For a start, the policy does not define integrity, pointing to the 2018 research conduct code and setting out eight examples of breaches, including, plagiarism, “fabrication, falsification, misrepresentation” and “failures in research data management.”

As to doing anything about them, (grant funding fraud aside), the Council, “does not investigate concerns or complaints about potential breaches of the code.” It is up to institutions to police themselves and report results, when the ARC can respond, up to cancelling grants and recovering funds.

However, the ARC does state that it, “may take precautionary and consequential actions” where its peer review, grant selection and funding decisions could be compromised. It can also act if “a matter” “has the potential to undermine confidence in the value of publicly-funded research.”

As to ARIC, it “reviews the processes undertaken by institutions in response to specific complaints,” but it does not look at, “the processes undertaken by institutions in response to specific complaints about potential breaches of the code.”

It does not appear as if this is because ARIC is overwhelmed with work. Last year it 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. Issues it identified included conflicts of interests, timeliness and a lack of objectivity in investigation.

The “precautionary and consequential” provision gives agencies the power to investigate allegation but overall what they can do is way short of the Swedish system established in 2020.

The National Board for Assessment of Research Misconduct (Npof.) in Sweden is a central government agency with its own board (of academics) and permanent investigations staff.

They take allegations directly and stick to the serious stuff, having a brief to investigate research misconduct, defined as, “fabrication, falsification or plagiarism that is committed intentionally or through gross negligence when planning, conducting or reporting research.”

Lesser matters are left to universities to look at. If it proceeds with a case, Npof can appoint an expert investigator who has a month to report.

It does not appear especially expansive or expensive – the sort of agency that is not seen as necessary until there is a major misconduct case which the research organisation involved ignore or understated.

Which could happen here – indeed there are arguments that it already has.



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