Liz Wager: What is the UK’s framework for research integrity?

Liz Wager An item in The Lancet last week (Godecharle et al. Lancet 2013;381:10097-8) bemoans the lack of a regulatory framework for research integrity in Europe. The confusion is neatly illustrated by a map categorising countries by how they handle misconduct. The UK falls into the second best category, along with Germany and Sweden, of countries that have a “national framework.” Only Denmark and Norway are in the top category of countries that have a framework established by law.

I’m delighted that this item has been published, and it raises some important points. It’s also factually correct in its description of the UK, but before we start congratulating ourselves, we should remember that the so-called “framework” in the UK actually consists of a voluntary agreement that doesn’t cover all funders and has no central mechanism or funding for enforcement. Along with many others, I welcomed the publication of the Concordat to Support Research Integrity in July 2012. It’s an excellent document, but that’s all it is: a piece of paper. It’s great that the concordat has been endorsed by many major public funders, some of whom have stated they will enforce it as a condition of grant. These are all very positive moves, but they hardly deserve the title of a national framework.

The concordat states that research insitutions should be responsible for investigating suspected misconduct. This echoes other guidelines including some from the Committee on Publication Ethics. which I helped to develop. This is an important principle but raises the age-old question of “who guards the guardians?” Doubtless many UK universities take this responsibility seriously, but anecdotal evidence suggests this is not always the case. Investigating misconduct properly is an onerous responsibility and institutions have few incentives for devoting scant resources to such tasks. Universities may also fear negative publicity if misconduct is proved, so the temptation to cover-up is great. The concordat recommends that institutions should make a “high-level statement on any formal investigations of research misconduct that have been undertaken … publicly available” – this will be wonderful but it will probably only happen if funders monitor it as a condition of grant.

The US, with its Office for Research Integrity (ORI) is often cited as an example of strong regulation, yet even this is not a truly national system. The ORI covers only federally funded health research, yet it has a staff of 24 and an annual budget of almost US$10m. A recent case demonstrated the importance of having a regulatory framework that can force institutions to investigate misconduct properly. According to US newspapers, the ORI forced the Ohio State University to reinvestigate a case. This resulted in six articles being retracted because of image manipulation, although the initial university inquiry had found no misconduct. Another important role of the ORI is to provide guidance and promote good practice – running an inquiry is no easy matter, and institutions often need advice. Here again, the UK system looks weak – we have the UK Research Integrity Office, which does sterling work, but it has no national recognition or funding, but is a charity reliant on donations from universities and short-term funding from the Department of Health which currently allows it to employ just two people.

I want to be proud of British research and of British institutions. I want us to be recognised as world leaders in both research and its governance and integrity. I would love to be able to say we have a properly funded national framework for research integrity, but I’m afraid that’s simply not the case.

Conflicts of interest: I am a member of the UKRIO advisory board and have received travel expenses to attend meetings. I am also in discussion with Universities UK about funding for a small research project investigating the implementation of the Concordat.

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