Liz Wager: Do we need to rethink our approaches to research misconduct and research integrity?

Liz WagerYesterday I took part in a joint BMJ/COPE meeting on research misconduct. The discussion set me thinking about factors that create and sustain healthy research environments.

When we talk about misconduct, we often think of the cases that hit the headlines (such as Hwang Woo-suk or Scott Reuben). If we use these examples to suggest that institutions should take research integrity more seriously, they understandably retort that such egregious behaviour is very rare. They also point out that it would be as disproportionate and unhelpful to assume that every researcher is a potential fraudster as to assume that every doctor is a potential mass murderer based on the case of Harold Shipman. So we often reach an impasse and accuse the institutions of complacency and continue muttering to ourselves.

Having failed to start a reasonable conversation about research integrity, based on major scandals, we see no point in trying to address so-called “minor” offences. But as Iain Chalmers said at the meeting, “lesser offences,” such as failing to publish research and publishing welcome results more often than disappointing results, harms many more patients than the high profile scandals (since it distorts the evidence on which guidelines and clinical practice are based). While plagiarism may be a nasty symptom of a sick system, it has probably never killed anybody while unreliable guidelines and misguided research undoubtedly have.

Other speakers addressed the role of institutions in encouraging good practice as well as their role in investigating serious misconduct. Until the meeting, I had always viewed these as one and the same thing. But I’m starting to think it’s more helpful to consider them separately. Viewing research institutions as microcosms of society produces a helpful analogy. Murder, is, like extreme research misconduct, thankfully, rare. But few would argue that we don’t need a police force and judiciary to deal with it when it occurs. However, we don’t expect the police to teach our children good manners and how to be responsible citizens—that’s the role of families and teachers. (Incidentally, most people would also admit that the existence of a penal system can never eradicate crime, and a speaker from the US pointed out that having good investigations doesn’t abolish misconduct.)

To encourage a healthy research climate we need the equivalent of both the police and the parent. Institutions need to have effective and efficient systems for handling allegations of serious misconduct. This isn’t easy and may require outside, expert help or advice. Institutions also need to nurture their employees and provide day-to-day mentoring and training—in other words to be a supportive “family.” If researchers “grow up” in such a positive environment, which inculcates and supports good values, then misconduct, both “major” and “minor” should decrease; but it’s unrealistic to expect that nobody will ever be tempted to break the rules so the research family still needs to pay its taxes to support an effective system for dealing with the problem children.

Thinking of the saying that “it takes a village to raise a child” we shouldn’t forget that a healthy community doesn’t only rely on parents (in this analogy probably research supervisors). Other players such as funders and editors need to be involved … but that might stretch my analogy too far.

Liz Wager PhD is a freelance medical writer, editor, and trainer. She is the current chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE).