Liz Wager on the launch of the concordat to support research integrity

Liz WagerI just attended the launch of the concordat to support research integrity developed by some major UK funders and Universities UK.

It’s easy to quibble at documents that try to achieve consensus on big issues. Invariably there are some recommendations I’d prefer to be stronger, but instead of carping I’ll focus on some highly positive developments. From the viewpoint of COPE (the Committee on Publication Ethics—which I chaired up until March this year), two of the biggest problems for editors faced with suspected misconduct is knowing how to contact institutions and lack of transparency (see BMJ 2011;343:d6586). I’m therefore pleased that the Concordat echoes COPE’s own guidelines that every institution employing researchers should “identify a senior member of staff to oversee research integrity and to act as a first point of contact.”

I’m also delighted that the Concordat recognises the need for greater transparency. It recommends that each institution should produce an annual statement summarising its activities to promote research integrity, its processes for handling misconduct allegations, and (perhaps most radically) any investigations that have been undertaken. This annual statement should not only be presented to the institution’s governing body, but should also be made public. This really is a major advance. Too often, investigations are shrouded in secrecy and editors who need information in order to decide whether publications should be retracted or corrected, are kept in the dark. I have heard anecdotal evidence of UK universities refusing to inform journals about the outcomes of research misconduct investigations because they fear this might breach employment law. Concerns about gagging clauses enforcing NHS whistleblowers not to disclose problems also persist. Therefore, recognition that more openness is needed is truly welcome.

Grand sounding documents are, of course, worthless unless they are enforced. One particularly encouraging aspect of today’s meeting was the commitment from funders such as the Wellcome Trust, UK Department of Health, and Medical Research Council (as part of RCUK) to make compliance with the Concordat a condition of grants. This means that these helpful recommendations come armed with some potentially sharp teeth.

Liz Wager PhD is a freelance medical writer, editor, and trainer. She was the chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE)  (2009-2012).