What the ARC does not do about research integrity

Research integrity watchdog ARIC’s annual report for 2022-23 was published earlier this month. It’s nothing to bark about.

The Australian Research Integrity Committee finalised five cases that year, leaving 11 active.

“These reviews can be resource intensive and time-consuming depending on the complexity of the case,” ARIC explains.

Not that the Committee considers case content, its remit is to review how an institution has managed and/or investigated a breach of the national research conduct code or the companion procedural guide. In cases where ARIC is unhappy it can request an institution do an investigation again, provide additional information to “additional parties” or adjust complaint handling or managing breaches “to ensure procedural fairness in future matters.”

The Committee is a creature of the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council and, according to Chair Patricia Kelly, “seeks to work in partnership with the research sector towards the shared aim of ensuring high levels of community confidence in the integrity of Australian research.”

In four of the five reviews finalised in 2022-23, ARIC recommended institution(s)

  • have another go at investigating an issue
  • improve process for managing/investigating potential breaches
  • improve communication with complainants and/or respondents
  • amend policies/procedures

In one case, ARIC concluded the institution  did everything as per the code.

ARIC reports most common issues include,

  • authorship: “institutions need to provide clear guidance on appropriate standards for authorship and authorship dispute resolutions processes”
  • inquiry pace: “lack of timeliness for institution investigations can compromise procedural fairness.”
  • failure to treat the complainant objectively and fairly
  • comms: “regular communication on the progress of an investigation engenders confidence”
  • not explaining outcomes

But as to investigating research misconduct, ARIC is not the agency – there isn’t one.

This regularly leads to calls for a national regulator, the Australian Academy of Science wants a “national oversight body,” with the power to order an institution to investigate possible research integrity breaches and to oversight investigations.

The new ARC Act (enacting recommendations of last year’s Sheil Review) certainly gives the ARC authority to get its money back in cases of a breach of a funding agreement that impacts the reputation of the organisation with the grant and/or “Australia’s reputation as a provider of high quality research.” Plus the codified objects of the Act also include, “support research integrity,” which can mean whatever an aggressive ARC CEO and board want it to mean.

But who is to do the investigating? Not ARIC.

The apparent absence of a watchdog that will bark in the night seems strange given the government’s new enthusiasm for oversighting universities. Maybe TEQSA could. In February it advised it intended to look for, “responsible staff –  trained to identify potential academic and research integrity breaches and take appropriate action.”

Plus there is a precedent in the making for a dedicated Commonwealth oversight body. The Department of Education in the process of establishing a unit to oversight and enforce a national higher education code to prevent and respond to gender-based violence, with enforcement authority over universities.



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